AUSTIN, Texas — An exhibition exploring the career of Works Progress Administration artist and author-illustrator Elizabeth Olds (American, 1896–1991) is coming to the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. This first critically engaged solo presentation of the artist’s work draws on the Ransom Center’s extensive art and archival collections to examine Olds’ career from the 1920s to the 1960s.
“Public Works: Art by Elizabeth Olds” examines Olds’ artistic legacy, from her poignant portrayals of labor conditions in American industry, to her satirical social commentary, to her engaging children’s books. More than 100 of her prints, paintings, drawings and illustrations will be on display.
“The art of Elizabeth Olds is noteworthy for its engagement with the world and for the dignity of the lives she captured on paper and canvas. Her work is also notable for its critique of power, a theme as relevant today as it was at the very beginning of her career nearly 100 years ago,” said Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss. “During her lifetime, Olds was always on the side of the individual, and the Ransom Center is proud to share her humane vision of America with new audiences today.”
In 1926, Olds became the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for the study of visual arts. Later, as a WPA printmaker, Olds recorded scenes of labor, heavy industry and urban life with sensitivity and candor. In addition to highlighting Olds’ depictions of Depression-era life and labor, the exhibition explores her careerlong experimentation in medium and form. Olds sought to activate the uniquely democratic and activist possibilities of printmaking and promoted silkscreen as a viable fine-art medium. From 1945 to 1963, guided by her belief that art could be an effective educational tool, Olds wrote and illustrated six children’s books. Archival materials on display shed light on her creative and artistic process.
“Olds was determined that American art should reflect contemporary American life, and that art could be mobilized as a powerful democratic tool,” said Tracy Bonfitto, the Ransom Center’s curator of art, who organized the exhibition. “Until very recently, the achievements and contributions of women WPA printmakers like Elizabeth Olds have been underrecognized. This exhibition explores not only Olds’ important WPA-era work, but also the ways in which her dedication to making accessible and affordable art found new and innovative form following the close of the federally funded program.”
“Public Works: Art by Elizabeth Olds” will open Feb. 3 and be on view through July 14. More information is online at hrc.utexas.edu.