Celebrating honest pay for honest work

Art for Labor Day: Working art, for and about working people

Jacob Lawrence, “Carpenters,” 1977, lithograph, 21.75 x 26 inches, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Salem

MONDAY IS LABOR DAY (AND, IN CANADA, LABOUR DAY), a day first celebrated in the United States in 1882 and first declared a federal holiday in 1894. It honors not only the work that people do but also the labor movement that grew slowly and gained strength through much of the 20th century, guaranteeing such advances as child labor laws, a forty-hour work week, and occupational safety laws, before losing much of its bargaining power in the past forty-odd years, and increasingly so in the gig economy. Yet labor remains a force, and Labor Day stands for much more than just a three-day weekend (the “weekend” being another triumph of the labor movement).

Artists are of course laborers, too – highly skilled laborers – and often enough labor has been the focus of their work. For the past two years in early September we’ve gathered a few images of art about labor from Pacific Northwest collections or public spaces.

  • Here’s the 2019 edition, featuring work by Gordon Gilkey, Max Beckmann, Betty LaDuke, Arthur Runquist, sculptor Jonathan Borofsky (Seattle’s Hammering Man), muralist Mike Alewitz (a memorial in downtown Centralia, Wash., to the 1919 Centralia Massacre), and historic photographers of coal miners and early 20th century New York garment workers on the picket line.  
  • Here’s the 2018 edition, featuring work by Joseph Stella, photgraphers Darius Kinsey and Katherine Joseph, Henk Pander, Robert Von Neumann, Arthur Runquist, and Jean-François Millet.

For 2020, we’re offering the lithograph above from the collections of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem – Carpenters, by the great Jacob Lawrence, who at age 23 created the groundbreaking Migration Series, in which he depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North, and who later taught for many years at the University of Washington in Seattle. Carpenters addresses the skill of artisanal labor. Many workers are highly skilled artisans, laboring long hours under official or unofficial training to gain mastery in their fields. A good carpenter is years in the making, and skilled at adapting to surprise circumstances and solving problems as they arise. Pride goes with craftsmanship, with knowing that you’re up to the job and your work will stand the test of time.

Such honest work, the union movement declares, is worthy of honest pay. And, yes, it deserves firing up the barbecue on a hot September afternoon.

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Bob Hicks is a Senior Editor and writer at Oregon ArtsWatch. He's been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, first as arts editor and movie critic at the Oregon Journal, then for 25 years at The Oregonian as a writer and editor covering the performing, visual, and literary arts. His most recent art books include "Kazuyuki Ohtsu" (Pomegranate), "James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time" (Hallie Ford Museum of Art), and "Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora" (Pomegranate). His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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