Arts & Entertainment
Painter Ray Ginther's work depicts poverty in the Puget Sound region during the Great Depression
After Democrats and Republicans wrangled in Olympia this past spring about how much to cut from social services, there was a question we might want to ask: What would things look like without a social safety net?
You don’t have to go too far from Seattle to find the answer — just down to the Washington State History Museum in downtown Tacoma, which is featuring Ronald Debs “Ray” Ginther’s paintings of the Depression era, as part of an exhibit titled “Hope in Hard Times: Washington State in the Great Depression.”
Ginther, who was born in Oregon and lived most of his life in and around Portland and Seattle, spent several years in the 1930s living on the streets and moving from place to place. He found work wherever he could and was active in organizing unions, unemployed councils and the Bonus March to Washington, D.C. in 1932, where 43,000 WWI vets and their allies demanded the certificates given to vets for time served be redeemed.
Judging by his paintings, he spent time in jail, as well as hobo camps, flophouses and missions. He taught himself to draw and paint what he saw. He didn’t set most of it down on paper until the 1960s, when he set out to create what amounts to a pictorial memoir of his experiences during a time when a quarter of Seattle workers were unemployed. He died of lung cancer in 1969.
The 92 paintings in the collection comprise one of the most engrossing depictions of life during the Depression that I’ve ever seen, comparable in its way to the photographs of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans. Of course, these are paintings, not photographs — but Ginther includes so much detail in his depictions, down to the words on signs and other background details, that they are convincing in their authenticity.
There are other differences from Lange and Evans. Those were sometimes posed photographs. Most of Ginther’s paintings are action scenes: people marching, fighting, dancing, crying, rooting through garbage, climbing on boxcars or inspecting their clothes for lice. Lange and Evans documented families and rural destitution; Ginther focuses in particular on homeless men, crowding the streets of Seattle and Portland, camping in hobo jungles, living in Hoovervilles on the tidal flats or watching as Seattle police burn the structures down. Photographs of Seattle’s Hooverville on a wall near the paintings give evidence of his memory’s accuracy. For most Seattleites, there’s an added bonus in that the streets are recognizable: many of the settings are in Pioneer Square.
Some of the scenes are recognizable, too. If you changed a few details — a baby buggy to a shopping cart, an old metal garbage can to a recycling bin — the street scenes of homeless people could be current, with one difference: The streets in Ginther’s paintings are crowded with the homeless. Besides documenting the Depression, Ginther documented his memory of homelessness — not just being on the streets, but in the cheap restaurants, the grungy jails and the barren flophouses.
I visited the exhibit with Ginther’s son, Ron. He pointed out a painting titled “The Face of Hunger. The Great Depression. Two Hours of Bumming — Two Graham Crackers,” in which a man is sitting on a curb, holding up the crackers, a tear running down his face; a shopkeeper stands in the background watching him. “It’s a self-portrait,” Ron said, a sob catching in his throat.
Ron told me that as things got better, his father “worked as a dishwasher and just sort of worked his way up to be a cook. Matter of fact, he was chef quality — the last place he worked was the Washington Athletic Club.” Next to the paintings, a photo of Ginther in a kitchen shows a very different man from the one in the self-portrait; he’s obviously well-fed and has a big smile on his face.
Because he taught himself to paint, it’s hard to know how much of Ginther’s style is intentional. The faces he portrays are not particularly attractive. They are mostly wrinkled, with huge eyes and fierce expressions. He clearly didn’t set out to ennoble his subjects. Besides showing what he remembered, he expressed his clear horror that life had come to this. Because of his attention to detail and action, I’m tempted to make comparisons to Goya and Bosch — there’s a nightmarish quality to most of the paintings, like a recollection of a sojourn in hell.
I pointed out this quality of the paintings to Gwen Perkins, the curator of the exhibit, and asked her where she saw the “hope” in the paintings, given the name of the show. “There’s a lot of hard times in those paintings,” she said. “But at the same time you actually see people working together. You see the worst of people in those paintings, but you also see the best — and there’s hope in the sense that this is not likely to happen again, not in this scale or not in this way, and especially not when we have this kind of visual documentation to remind us.”
In addition to Ginther’s paintings, the exhibit provides other documentation of those hard times: photos of Seattle’s Hooverville, taken for a school newspaper in Sedro Wooley; a photo series about Works Progress Administration (wpa) projects, which provided low-wage employment of last resort to many people; a billy club used against protestors; and artifacts like games and toys. A bulletin board invites visitors to write down what they’ve heard from their elders about the 1930s. “When I got older,” Ginther’s son told me, “I should have started asking more questions from both of my parents and gotten their sense of living through that history.”
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