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Images of Labor and Social Justice: The Art of Richard V. Correll

Highlights from the Collection of the Labor Archives of Washington, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections


Richard V. "Dick" Correll (1904-1990), described as "one of the leading masters of printmaking in the West", was best known for his powerful black and white linoleum cuts, etchings and woodblock prints. For most of his life he earned a living as a commercial artist in the book publishing and advertising fields while producing a large body of fine art in his own time. His themes ranged from landscapes, animals and agricultural scenes, harbors and ships, and music and dance to those which reflected his lifelong concern with political and social issues. As one curator wrote, "the maturity of his technique, with its rich textures and dramatic contrasts, combines with a wide range of subject matter to produce a body of work of great warmth, power, and depth". Correll stated that, above all, he was a humanist.

"In art I am chiefly attracted by the synthesis of realism and design: That is, a humanitarian realism and an abstract-dramatic design - Each one to augment the other - an old combination of limitless possibilities."

photograph of Correll painting sign

Richard V. Correll painting a sign in Los Angeles, California, 1932

photograph of Correll in studio

Richard V. Correll posing in an art studio, ca. 1935-1939

Early Life, Oregon and California, 1904-1933

Childhood in Rural Oregon • Move to Los Angeles, 1920s • Influence of the Great Depression in California on Correll

Born in Missouri 1904, Richard Correll spent most of his life in the three West Coast states, spending his early years in small farms or towns in Oregon and California. He absorbed his intellectual thirst – and the craft of fine woodworking - from his father, a lawyer, school teacher, master carpenter, and voracious reader, and the love of art and music from his mother, a musician trained at Oberlin. A natural artist from early childhood, by the age of four Dick was cutting perfect farm animals out of paper with his mother's sewing scissors. He was largely self-taught: "I combed the library of every place we moved to for reproductions and critical articles on artwork or artists. I'm a constant student." He also became sensitized to the environment early on through working in his family's small garden plots and farms and caring for the occasional family cow, horse or flock of chickens.

By the later 1920s the family had moved to Los Angeles. Dick's father and uncle began building houses there during the housing boom, with Dick doing the architectural drafting and his younger brother the electrical work. The two young men helped their father and brother with everything from basic construction to fine cabinetry. After the building boom collapsed with the Depression, Dick opened a couple of sign shops and did sign painting and calligraphy. He took a few art classes at what was then Chouinard Art Institute, but never attended as a matriculated student. He continued to sketch and draw on his own.

Dick's political thinking deepened with the Depression and seeing flocks of people uprooted by the Dust Bowl, hungry and homeless, stream into California. He began to see that art could be a vehicle to express ideas.

Seattle, the Voice of Action, and the W.P.A., 1933-1941

Back to Oregon, 1933 • Voice of Action • Move to Seattle, 1935 • Federal Art Project • Paul Bunyan Series

In 1933 Correll moved back to Oregon where he began creating prints for the Communist Party's weekly newspaper, the Voice of Action and contributing political cartoons to the New Masses. Correl's prints for the papers were distinguished by their detail and bold design. Correll moved to Seattle in 1935 and during this period, he also illustrated the Voice of Action's 1936 Northwest Labor Calendar. By the late 30s, Correll was selected to participate in the Federal Art Project of the Works Projects Administration (WPA). This recognition confirmed his decision to pursue art professionally, and gave him (and many other artists as well) an opportunity to earn their livings as fine artists, practicing artists for the first, and sometimes the only time in their lives. While working alongside such artists as Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Faye Chong, Jules Twohy and Hannes Bok, Correll's work matured and his style crystallized.

Correll specialized in printmaking, primarily wood and linoleum block prints, but produced etchings and lithographs as well. In addition, he produced drawings, gouache paintings and two murals. Especially notable from Correll's WPA period is a suite of prints depicting the legendary American folk hero, Paul Bunyan. In one exhibition catalogue these were described to be "as large in spirit as their inspiration."

During the Seattle years, Correll was a founding member of the Washington Artists' Union. He married his wife Alice in 1938. He had several solo shows and exhibited widely in national juried group shows (Print Club of Philadelphia, the California Etcher's Society, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Print Annual.) In 1939 his work was exhibited at the New York World's Fair. Many of the works from the WPA period are today in the collections of museums, universities, and public buildings and continue to be shown and circulated. His murals of Paul Bunyan remain in a high school in Bremerton, Washington.

photograph of Correll and other WPA artists

Group photograph of Richard V. Correll and other WPA Federal Art Project artists [1], ca. 1933-1941

photograph of mural on school wall

Paul Bunyan mural at Arlington High School, ca. 1940

photograph of Correll in NYC studio

Richard V. Correll working in a studio in New York City, ca. 1940s

New York City, 1941–1952

Working as a Commercial Artist • World War II • New York Art Community

Curator and fine print dealer M. Lee Stone writes, "In 1941 Correll and his wife moved to New York City where he remained for 11 years working in the commercial art field. New York's commercial and fine art scenes, however, were not without their difficulties. While commercial work paid decently, Correll always thought it a 'sorry thing' to use one's artistic abilities to sell products. His values were completely opposed to those of Madison Avenue, and this contradiction plagued him throughout his commercial career.

As America entered World War II, Correll, at 36, was too old for the draft. He joined the Civilian Defense Corps as an Air Raid Warden in the Greenwich Village area. He also did artwork for Civil Defense, producing dozens of pro bono flyers, banners, signs and posters for various causes." Daughter Leslie was born in 1944.

After joining the Artists League of America (ALA), an organization of progressive artists and sculptors "devoted to social, cultural, and economic interest of artists", Correll served as Publication Chair of the ALA News from 1943 on, and by 1946 was Editor. Membership in those years included Rockwell Kent, Lynd Ward, Jacob Lawrence and Moses Soyer. He exhibited regularly with ALA, and his linocut, "Air Raid Wardens" was included in the "Artists for Victory" travelling exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and 26 other venues in the USA and Canada.

Correll remarked, "New York was an especially exciting place for an artist during these years. Murals by the Mexican artists could be seen in the School for Social Research as well as in the Museum of Modern Art. Refugees from fascist persecution were bringing over the latest European art theories." George Grosz was teaching at the Art Students League. Correll knew Fritz Eichenberg, Robert Gwathmey and Miguel Covarrubias among others. Receiving serious attention in New York for the first time were works by Kathe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch, Miguel Covarrubias, Joseph Cornell, and the major collection of African sculpture owned by fellow ALA member Ladislas Segy. Fellow artists Norman Barr, Harry Roth and Abe Blashko were good friends of the Corrells.

San Francisco Bay Area, 1952-1990

Graphic Arts Workshop • Retirement • Bay Area Art Community

In 1952 Dick had had enough of Madison Avenue and the family moved back to the West Coast, this time to San Francisco. Soon Dick joined the newly-formed Graphic Arts Workshop and Printmaker's Gallery of San Francisco, a dynamic group of progressive artist-activists who shared studio and exhibition space as well as the desire to serve the ideals of peace and social justice through their artwork. The GAW was then located in North Beach, which threw Dick into the vital art and cultural movement of the 50s. Through his lifelong membership in the Workshop he met and worked with many other noted San Francisco artists and muralists of his generation such as Emmy Lou Packard, Irving Fromer, Victor Arnautoff, William Wolff, Louise Gilbert, Pele de Lappe and Stanley Koppel. In 1954 he realized a lifelong dream of visiting México, the famous Taller de Gráfica Popular and the great works of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros that had so influenced him and his generation.

In 1969 Correll happily retired from the commercial art field and was able to work full time at his fine art. The family moved to Oakland, across the Bay from San Francisco in 1972, where Dick could at last have a garden and a large studio. Upon the occasion of his 80th birthday he was honored with a major retrospective exhibition and community celebration. He died in 1990 at the age of 85. A monograph on his work (Richard V. Correll: Prints and Drawings) was published in 2005, to recognize the centenary of his birth.

photograph of Correll in Oakland studio

Richard V. Correll at work in his studio in Oakland, California, 1984

photograph of farm workers picketing

Group of National Farm Workers Association members with picket sign created by Richard V. Correll, ca. 1960-1965

photograph of Correll protesting

Richard V. Correll holding protest sign on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 1983

Activism and Humanism: Correll’s Style and Influences

Anti-War Activism • Social Justice • Civil Rights • The United Farm Workers

On two occasions Correll participated with other artists in an attempt to form a union: in Washington with the Washington Artists Union and in New York City with the Artists League of America. Colleagues in the latter included Rockwell Kent, Lynd Ward, Philip Evergood, Ladislas Segy, Harry Gottlieb, Robert Gwathmey, Moses Sawyer, Art Young and Harry Sternberg. Correll served as the organization's Publications Chair and Editor of the A.L.A. News.

Correll's gentle and reserved demeanor was in sharp contrast to what San Francisco art critic Thomas Albright saw as the "remarkable boldness and strength" of his artwork. His themes often reflected his social conscience and he was attracted by heroic acts committed by everyday people in the struggle to achieve respect, freedom, and human rights. He marched with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers on their historic journey from Delano to Sacramento, contributed to and mounted the inaugural exhibition for the S.F. Afro-American Historical and Cultural Society, and created countless posters, leaflets, signs, and exhibits to civil rights, Native American, senior, labor, environmental, and world peace groups.

* Text excerpted courtesy of Correll Studios, Copyright © 2012, Correll Studios. All rights reserved.

Federal Art Project

jobless linocut 1

Dwellings of the Jobless #1, 1939

jobless linocut 2

Dwellings of the Jobless #2, 1939

jobless linocut 3

Dwellings of the Jobless #3, 1939

workers print

Work Rhythm, 1937

shacks linocut

Hillside Shacks, 1937

cityscape linocut

Cityscape, ca. 1937-1939

family linocut 1

Untitled [Mother and Two Children], 1936

man linocut

Man Running, 1939

family linocut 2

Hunger, 1937

Paul Bunyan Series

lumber linocut

Packing Lumber, 1937

digging linocut

Digging Puget Sound, 1939

shoveling linocut

Creation of San Juan Islands, 1937

ox linocut

Babe the Blue Ox, 1938

sleeping linocut

Slumbering, 1938

chopping linocut

Clearing Tacoma Flats, 1938

rifle linocut

The Upside Down Mountain, 1940

cow linocut

Barn Window, 1936

Images of Labor

woman lithograph

Drought, 1955

woman and man linocut

Veterans of a Hill Farm Struggle, 1981

plow woodcut

Spring Plowing, 1974

pickers woodcut

Cotton Pickers, 1974

cane cutter etching

Cane Cutter, 1975

sharecropper lithograph

Sharecropper and Mule, 1957

injured worker linocut

An Injury to All, 1980

workers linocut

Quarry Workers, 1978

dock workers linocut

Cargo Handling in the 1950s, 1954

raliroad workers lithograph

Railroaders, 1958

marchers woodcut 1

Vineyard March, 1970

marchers woodcut 2

Jobless March on the Palace, Dominican Republic, 1973

log pilers lithograph

Piling Logs, 1962

field woodcut

In the Field, ca. 1930

cowboy scratchboard drawing

Black Cowman, 1975

shoveler linocut

Shoveler, 1939

protests linocut

For Labor's Right to Organize, 1934

Anti War

planes dead trees woodcut/collage

Defoliation Caper, 1968

planes woodcut

Locusts, 1966

mother and child linocut

After the War

uniformed skeleton woodcut

Take My Advice/ Outlaw War, ca. 1942-1943

internment linocut

Pacification, 1970

refugees linocut

Refugees, 1938

people in forest linocut

Live and Let Live, 1967

Civil Rights / Black Freedom Struggle

broken chains linocut

Chains, 1977

woman scratchboard drawing

Black Mother, 1964

mother and baby lithograph

For the Future, 1954

being hosed linocut

Fire hose / Fight back, 1971

man in prison cell lithograph

The Prisoner, 1969

Voice of Action NW Labor History Calendar

"The Voice of Action was a radical labor newspaper that was published weekly in Seattle from March 1933 until October 1936. Although the Voice of Action was loyal to the Communist Party, this was rarely ever discussed. Instead, the general focus was on issues of forced labor, unemployment, labor politics, racism, the plight of the small farmer, and the crises of the poverty-stricken from starvation to forced eviction from their homes. Each issue of the Voice of Action was brimming with information in the form of much local, some national, and a little international news relating mainly to the aforementioned issues. This paper served as a source of news that could not be found in any other publications in this area during this period."1

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Correll began contributing woodblock prints to the pages of Voice of Action on a weekly basis in 1933. One of several artists who contributed relief prints to issues of the newspaper, Correll's work stands out for its technical skill and strong design sense. 2

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Years later, Correll recalled that coming up with ways to contain a lot of information in a small block print on a weekly basis helped him improve as an artist. The 1936 Northwest Labor History Calendar, illustrated by Correll, was published by the Voice of Action.2

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View the Richard V. Correll digital collection at University of Washington Libraries Special Collections "Society and Culture collection"