Works Progress Administration

Archaeopteryx carving by Fred Myers
"Archaeopteryx" wood carving by Fred Myers at the Southern Illinois University Museum

Founded in 1935 as the Works Progress Administration, the WPA was the largest work relief agency during the Great Depression, employing millions of people in public projects including building and road construction across the United States. At its peak in 1938, it provided jobs for three million unemployed men and women. Between 1935 and 1943, when the agency was disbanded, the WPA employed more than eight million.

A WPA project known as Federal Project Number One provided employment to musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors. Many of the works of art commissioned by this project reflect economic depression and recovery.

WPA artist Fred Myers (1910-1950)

Frederick Eric Myers was a Southern Illinois native who carved approximately 120 works in his short lifetime. The University Museum has 28 of his works, most of which were created when Myers worked for the WPA. A self-taught artist, Myers began whittling while working in the coal mines.

Using primarily black walnut and cherry stump wood, Myers created presidential figures, the common man, prehistoric and modern animals, and a variety of items from gun stocks to pipes. His first major work, “The Myers Lincoln”, was carved in 1929 from a railroad tie that he brought back from his work in the Old West Mine near West Frankfort, Illinois.

When the mine closed in 1936, Myers and his parents made ends meet by farming and doing odd-jobs. After two operations for a ruptured appendix and infection in 1938, he developed an incisional hernia which prevented heavy labor and ultimately contributed to his death in 1950.

From 1939-1942, Myers was employed by the renamed Work Projects Administration. He was assigned to work at Southern Illinois Normal University (now SIUC) for the University Museum under Director Fred Cagle. Myers carved prehistoric animals to fit in with Museum exhibits. In 1941, Myers began making carvings of the working man under new Museum Director John W. Allen. He created 35 carvings for the Museum before his WPA employment ended in 1942, as America turned its efforts to World War II. Because the carvings were not well secured in the early years, only 23 of his WPA works remain in the Museum’s collection.

View 28 works by Fred Myers at the Southern Illinois University Museum.