At 86, artist Edward L. Loper still describes himself as a "Roosevelt liberal." The passing of 60 years has not diminished his feelings about the national cataclysm known as the Great Depression. Nor has time dimmed his memory of how the New Deal enabled a young black father in Wilmington to paint his way out of the abyss.
Loper went on to create works of art that are in the collections of Howard University, the Corcoran Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Delaware Art Museum. But in the 1930s, he was simply one of millions of unemployed would-be factory workers. All of 20, he had a family to feed. By chance, his wife, who sought help at a relief office, mentioned that her husband could draw. That opened the door to one of the New Deal's most idealistic art projects, the Index of Modern Design.
Last week Loper came to Washington to recollect and to celebrate. The Index is a vast archive of folk art images -- 18,000 watercolors painted by Loper and others as part of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. On Wednesday, the National Gallery of Art, which has owned the Index for 60 years, finally put a bit of it on display. The exhibition, "Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism and the Index of American Design," combines 80 stunningly accurate images of what we now call Americana with nearly 40 of the original examples. There are exquisitely charming weather vanes, carved carousel horses, embroidery samplers, quilts, pottery, furniture and much, much more.
"The work is overwhelming," said Loper, who is one of two surviving Index artists. "This is the best thing that has ever happened. Roosevelt wanted to put people to work, and they thought up a pretty darn good way."
Three of Loper's renderings -- a painted Windsor chair, a toy bank and a cast-iron fire screen -- are included with the output of artists in other states, whose work he had never seen. All told, Loper produced 113 near-perfect images of toys, furniture and decorative objects. Between 1936 and 1941 his workday extended from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. He was paid $39.20 every two weeks, which he calls a "decent salary," especially considering the alternative.
Loper's unemployed neighbors -- he describes a cosmopolitan mix of blacks, Poles, Swedes, Italians, Irish -- walked four miles along the railroad tracks to line up for work at a Du Pont construction site. To this day, Loper can recall the dashed hopes of 40 or 50 men left at the gate when the foreman shouted: "You, you and you, and that's all."
"This was like Heaven," Loper says of his better fortune. "I could do something I loved to do."
The idea for the Index originated in New York, where a textile designer named Ruth Reeves and a New York Public Library employee named Romana Javitz envisioned creating a database of American decorative and folk art to supplement the available archives, which were mostly drawn from European sources. The women proposed the idea to the Federal Art Project, whose director, Holger Cahill, was both a folk art enthusiast and an advocate of modern industrial design. He endorsed the concept, and an office was set up in Washington.
Between 1935 and 1941, the project employed about 1,000 men and women in 34 states and the District. Many were highly skilled commercial artists working in Manhattan. Others, like Loper, had interest and talent but would develop artistry on the job.
"When I started," he said, "I didn't know anything about it. I learned. I believe any human being can learn. You just do it."
The more skilled taught the newcomers. Loper, who has spent the rest of his life teaching, worked under a senior Index artist who had studied under the 19th-century painter William-Adolphe Bougereau. Loper learned to manipulate strings on a table to achieve perspective, and to read color values with nothing more than a black-and-white photograph and a list of hues.
"We would go over and over and over" a rendering, he recalled. "Sometimes it would take two weeks to do one plate."
An administrator in Washington ruled on whether the work met federal standards. The National Gallery show is the picture of success. Loper was dazzled by the achievement of artists who copied textiles. Their renderings are so lifelike that he could discern each thread.
The marvelous quality of the drawings is brought home by the objects themselves. When hung side by side, a piece of embroidery and its rendered twin are easily confused.
"They were really masters at what they did," said curator Virginia Tuttle Clayton, the gallery's associate curator of Old Master prints.
She scoured museums and private collections across the country to bring the exact objects painted on paper, but succeeded in only about half the cases. A Civil War drum found at the Chicago Historical Society sits on a pedestal beneath its likeness. A gold-leaf weather vane in the form of the Angel Gabriel, from a private collection, is flanked by a finished rendering as well as a demonstration drawing created to teach others in the program.
Many of the objects painted were already in museums, historic homes, antique shops and private collections. Participants in some states recorded them with photography rather than paints, though the reason is not known. Nearly one-third of the Index was produced in New York. Unlike the District of Columbia, which curators say had ample resources but lacked artists, New York had a significant community of unemployed illustrators as well as a seemingly limitless supply of objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, antique dealers and in private homes.
All this makes the Index an artistic treasure and a terrific archive of antiques. But it is also a cultural curiosity. The Index was conceived not as a guide to the past but as a guiding light to a future for modern designers.
With much of Europe in shambles, American intellectuals were reaching for a new aesthetic vocabulary, one rooted in their own culture rather than borrowed from the Old World. They found particular beauty and value in worn shop signs, cigar-store figures, painted coffeepots, roller skates and toy trains. By creating a visual archive of these objects, they hoped to inspire industrial designers as well as fine artists, all of whom would improve the quality of everyday objects for ordinary people.
It was the kind of intellectual leap that could be made only during the period of extreme idealism between the two World Wars. Clayton rightly sizes up the effort as "a brief but glorious moment." One glance around the galleries is enough to see that folk art does embody a spirit of optimism that may be associated with the birth of a new nation. But nationalism as a positive ideal was destroyed by the Nazi example.
As for the fantasy that folk art could serve as inspiration for industrial design as well as fine arts, the National Gallery is a perfect example of how far apart fine and applied arts remain.
None of this makes the Index of American Design any less of a treasure. Most of the illustrated objects have been lost forever. Others, including an especially fragile embroidery sampler, appear to be disintegrating. It is not hard to imagine a day when the watercolor rendition will be all that remains.
To Loper, that only accentuates the value of the WPA project.
"That's going to be available for people to see for many years to come," he said. "It shows what Americans were able to do."
In the quiet of the august West Building, he considered his own trajectory and how others might follow. Loper gave up painting objects years ago, but not his belief in the New Deal.
"I would have been working in a factory today," he said, like "so many fellows who don't have a chance" without subsidized help. "This kind of thing, we could stand a bit of now. It would be an opportunity for young people to turn out wonderful work."
Loper had no doubt they could find things today that would be worth seeing 200 years hence.
Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism and the Index of American Design runs through March 2 at the National Gallery of Art. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. 202-842-6690; www.nga.gov