Great Art from the Great Depression

Millions of jobs were lost during the Great Depression. Writers, musicians and artists were particularly hard hit as patronage dried up, markets withered and customers tightened their belts.

Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”—an amalgam of public work projects, financial reforms and regulations—was a godsend for workers in many fields, but especially the arts. In fact, one of the first back-to-work programs was the Public Works of Art Project. “PWAP” engaged painters, sculptors and muralists to enhance outdoor areas, as well as public and government facilities.

Tremont, then known as South Side, was a focal point for PWAP initiatives—particularly the Valleyview Homes housing project. Local artists enhanced the area with stone sculpture animals and a terracotta map of Valleyview. These pieces can still be viewed in the vicinity of Starkweather Avenue and West 7th Street. Several canvas murals also were created for Valleyview. Two of these—painted by local artist and teacher Elmer Brown—now hang in Cleveland State University’s Student Center. A third, by Louis Grebenak, is installed at CMHA headquarters.

Other artists made South Side their subject. Perhaps the most iconic example is Ora Coltman’s Dominance of the City—the first New Deal mural commissioned in Cleveland. Currently gracing a wall in the Cleveland Public Library, the piece is a triptych that showcases St. Theodosius Cathedral on its right-most panel. Artists of the time also designed promotional posters for public housing, including one for the Valleyview Homes project that soon will adorn a storefront wall on Professor Avenue.

Between 1933 and 1943, hundreds of Cleveland artists were paid to work in all media. In fact, an actual “Cleveland Style” in mural painting developed, characterized by bright, flattened areas of color and simplified, realistic shapes. Tremont was the proud recipient of these multifaceted efforts, as were many nearby neighborhoods such as Ohio City and Downtown.

Walkabout Tremont Showcases Art + More on the second Friday of every month (upcoming dates: August 10, September 14, October 12 and November 9). Check out new art, fashion, music, food, drink and entertainment. Visit

Photo credits:

Figure 1: Stone Playground Animals, sculpted by Edris Eckhardt between 1935 and 1939.

Figure 2: A PWAP-sponsored poster advertises the opening of the Valleyview Homes low-income housing project, c1940.

Figure 3: A terracotta mural by Leroy Flint and Henry Olmer graced the wall of a Valleyview Homes dwelling. When the housing project was demolished, the piece was preserved and remounted at the new Tremont Pointe in the same area.

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