Beneath them, block letters read:
WE THE PEOPLE - TO FORM A MORE PERFECT UNION - ESTABLISH JUSTICE - ENSURE DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY - PROVIDE FOR THE COMMON DEFENSE - PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE
Lenore Thomas completed her bas-relief sextet for Greenbelt in 1937. It was a new town born of the New Deal, in the forest of central Maryland. Greenbelt was developed by the Federal Government as both an experiment in affordable housing and a make-work project. The theatre, the shops, and even the houses gleamed white in the town’s signature art deco style. Art and infrastructure - indivisible.
When the Resettlement Administration built Greenbelt’s primary school, they commissioned Lenore Thomas to decorate the public face of the building and gave her free reign to choose her subject. Expertly blending patriotic nostalgia and New Deal optimism, she chose to represent the Preamble to the United States Constitution.
With bold realism, Thomas portrays strong women and men in quotidian scenes. An office worker and orchard hand greet one another. Gardeners, judges, miners and typists are busy and productive. A farmer, harvesting wheat, pauses to speak with a resting tradesman. They are diverse. They are neighbors. They make powerful eye contact. It is a hopeful work of art.
In 1937, when Greenbelt’s first residents moved into their homes, the Great Depression was in its eighth year. Jewish refugees had been emigrating in large numbers from Germany for four years – since Hitler became Reichskanzler. Amidst chaos, Thomas chose to portray a community whose members are bound to one another by their labor and the optimism of their country’s founders.
Where is the contemporary counterpart to Lenore Thomas’ sculptures?
In recent history, only Lawrence Halprin’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C. (1997) is so accessible all of its beholders. The FDR Memorial has something to offer everyone: The New Deal; Radio; Victory in war; Hatred of war; Environmentalism; Feminism; Success despite his disability; a Dog. Everyone has at least one thing to love about it, regardless of their point of view.
More recent additions to the National Mall don’t measure up to this standard.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is a progressive celebration, but the socialist realist style invites conservative skepticism. The wall of quotes comes off as a bit preachy.
Nearby, the World War II Memorial (2004) is a neoclassical water-park drenched in nationalism. The bronze cacophony of stars, flags, logos, wreaths, etc. was not designed to indulge liberal discourse, regret or interpretation.
Unfortunately, more polarization is on the way.
Near Union Station, the tiny Peace Corps Memorial seems unlikely to inspire many red-blooded patriots on pilgrimage to the monumental core. Likewise, the upcoming Eisenhower Memorial will focus heavily the 34th president's military career. I doubt that the text of Ike’s farewell address will appear on the premises.
This is not good enough.
2016 has begun to feel like the endgame for two-presidencies-worth of partisan rage. Political rallies are becoming violent. Civic art needs to respond to and to redirect this passion, but recent memorials and those being planned, will not inspire greater tolerance or unity.
If there is an artist or a designer working today with Lenore Thomas’ ability to inspire both sides of the left/right divide, I’d like to see their work. I'd like to see it built near the National Mall. I'd love to see that happen soon.