Active Life and
Contemplative Life (1937)
Carl William Peters' first commission under the Works Progress Administration was for two murals titled "Active Life," and "Contemplative Life." These murals were set to go in the auditorium of Madison High School. The two murals, pictured to the right, are examples of a typical trend in WPA murals: depicting artistic material and imagery that reflected the specialization of the school that the murals were in. For Madison High School, this meant showing the fact that both academic and technical courses were available. While "Active Life" reflected the skilled labor and craftsmanship that students in technical classes were learning, "Contemplative Life" depicts literature, the arts, and other academic classes that students may have taken.
White Woman of the Genesee and
Indian Allen (1937-1938)
The next two murals for West High School provide an example of another common WPA topic. Many Federal Arts Project administrators, including those of Rochester's branch, encouraged artists to portray "local history narratives." In order to facilitate this, they would provide these artists with research material so that they could paint a historically accurate scene. Peters' West High School murals, "White Woman of the Genesee" and "Indian Allen" are two murals that clearly take historical inspiration.
The two historical figures portrayed in these murals are Mary Jemison, nicknamed the "White Woman of the Genesee," and Ebenezer "Indian" Allen. Mary Jemison was an Irish frontierswoman who was captured by Seneca people and adopted into a Seneca family, where she grew up and lived most of her life within Native American communities. By the time she was older, she became known as a well loved and respected member of the community, and many people would benefit from her hospitality as she rarely turned away anyone who needed a roof over their head or a warm meal. Ebenezer Allen had made his way north from Pennsylvania to settle in the Genesee countryside, and bought land in the area that is now Rochester. Allen is most known for setting up the first mills at the Genesee falls, and while they were not very successful at the time, they were the predecessors of larger mills that would turn Rochester into a booming mill-town. Though certain accounts remember Allen as lawless, violent, and cruel, others speculate that he was responsible for helping build positive relations between local Iroquois tribes and colonial settlers.
Jemison and Allen were both celebrated in the city of Rochester's 1934 centennial, and were subjects of thorough focus and documentation during the 1920s and 30s. They were also included in the wider effort to document local history that was happening under the Rochester Federal Writers' Project. Carl Peters' murals portraying these two local history figureheads display a similar blend of fact and fiction to the historical narratives that likely inspired them: both take real people that played roles in Rochester's history and provide a highly romanticized view of these pioneers.
The Early Days of the Erie Canal (1938)
Peters's 1938 mural commission would decorate the walls of a recently constructed WPA building housing the Fairport Library. "The Early Days of the Erie Canal" can be viewed as a testament to Peters' respect for the farming families and community that he grew up in. The mural portrays strong pioneer settlers working with horses, plows, and tugboats in the background. When looking at this mural, note that the people portrayed are a blend of men and women working, showing Peters' respect for women like his mother who were central to the smooth running of a family farm.
It is interesting to consider the fact that the majority of Peters' murals made use of vast vertical space, but this one spans twenty feet horizontally. Peters' uses the Erie Canal as a strip of blue in the background to unite the many different scenes going on across the canvas.
The History of the Lake Ontario Region (1939-1942)
Peters' most extensive commission came in 1939, for an eight-mural series depicting the Rochester region's history. The set itself was titled "The History of the Lake Ontario Region," and it likely took the painter up to three years to finish. The eight murals of this sequence start with the region's earliest inhabitants: the murals "Algonquin Fishermen" and "Seneca-Iroquois" depict multiple groups of indigenous people in nature, with backgrounds lacking any man-made structures. The next few murals depict the arrival of the French, a Reverend bringing maps and religion to the area, guns, ships, white settlers, and structures being built. Finally, the sequence culminates in a two murals titled "The 19th Century" and "Triumph of the American Ideal," in which buildings, steam engines, and well-dressed city folks represent the industrialization of the Genesee wilderness.
Such imagery reflecting white settlers conquering native land as "noble" and "triumphant" can be somewhat difficult to reckon with as a modern viewer, since we now know how much brutal and violent assault occurred as a product of Westward Expansion. Despite the fact that modern viewers understand that this particular American truth is not one that should be romanticized, it is also important to understand that this imagery is the product of a classic WPA narrative. While the simplistic story in Peters' "History of the Lake Ontario Region" mural set is certainly a stereotypical, overly romanticized, and one-sided portrayal of American history, it reflects the New Deal government's idea that white explorers and settlers were heroes that paved the way for the triumphant emergence of modern technology and cities, and the dominance of American capitalism and democracy.
Science and Humanity (1941)
The final commission that Carl Peters finished for the WPA was titled "Science and Humanity," for the Medical Museum at the Rochester Academy of Medicine. This is the only WPA mural of Peters' that is believed to be destroyed, and it is subsequently the mural that we know the least about. While we do not have any full, color images of the mural, there are two existing phogoraphs of both Carl Peters and an unidentified assistant working on the mural. The mural itself focuses on a number of men and women who "contributed to the advancement of medical science."