Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Labor Day: The Art of Work


Today is Labor Day, the day we celebrate the American labor movement and its drive to guarantee living wages and safe, decent working conditions for all workers. It’s been an official federal holiday since 1894, through boom times and hard times, strikes and strike-busting, and massive shifts in technology and public/private economic strategies that have weakened the labor movement that inspired the holiday. A historic transfer of wealth away from the working and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the superrich threatens much of what the labor movement has accomplished in the past century and more. Nevertheless, the movement persists.

Art is skilled labor, and quite naturally, artists often depict work and workers in their art. Here’s a selection of Oregon pieces that celebrate labor in its many forms. The second and sixth images are from the exhibition Strength and Dignity: Images of the Worker from the Permanent Collection, at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through October 21.

IN THE FACTORIES, where the labor movement took root: Joseph Stella, Factories at Night, ca. 1936/1943, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, allocated by the U.S. government, commissioned through New Deal art projects, Portland Art Museum.

IN THE WOODS AND THE MILLS: Darius Kinsey, Rayment Shingle Mill, 1919 (negative), 1980 (print), gelatin silver print on Kodak Azo paper, 10 x 13 inches, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Salem. Part of the exhibition Strength and Dignity: Images of the Worker from the Permanent Collection, at the Hallie Ford through October 21.


WHERE DISASTER STRIKES and emergency workers respond: Dutch-born Oregon artist Henk Pander, Something Happened on the Old Road, 2008, oil on linen, 72 x 96 inches, Los Angeles County Fire Department Collection.


IN THE FIELDS OF AGRICULTURE, where the poor followed the workers to glean the leftovers: Jean-François Millet (French, 1814-1875), Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners), 1855, etching on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, Portland Art Museum.


WHERE ROADS AND BUILDINGS are hewn from the land, sometimes through dangerous skilled labor with explosives: Arthur Runquist, Powder Monkey, ca. 1940, oil on cardboard, 35.75 x 29.5 inches, Portland Art Museum. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration. Oregon W.P.A. Project.



Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

ON THE SEA: Robert Von Neumann, The Six Net Menders, 1935, aquatint, 7.635 x 11.7 inches, gift of Dan and Nancy Schnieder, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Salem. Part of the exhibition Strength and Dignity: Images of the Worker from the Permanent Collection, at the Hallie Ford through October 21.


IN THE GARMENT DISTRICT: Katherine Joseph, Every Minute Counts, 1942, garment workers on the home front, New York; © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg; photo courtesy Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. From the 2016 exhibition Every Minute Counts: Photographs by Katherine Joseph, at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.



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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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