Light Dispelling Darkness - WPA Art
Edison, New Jersey
Art is subjective, but when the subjects of a work include a hollow-eyed banshee, a leering skeleton, idealized workers -- and a Zeppelin - who wouldn't be impressed?
That cast is assembled in a park fountain named "Light Dispelling Darkness," unveiled in 1938. It was one of thousands of Depression-era WPA projects, many of which survive today as cherished examples of how jobless America dragged itself from the pit of despair. Quite a few WPA sculptures and murals are figurative depictions of communities triumphing through engineering, science, education and hard work. But the stakes of failure are high in "Light Dispelling Darkness," a cautionary, crazy tableaux showing both good and evil.
Its creator, 32-year-old Waylande Gregory, was also the director of the WPA-funded New Jersey Federal Arts Program. He evidently got to do whatever he wanted with this particular project.
Light Dispelling Darkness was meant to be an allegory of human progress. In the center of the fountain stands a 15-foot-tall pillar circled with reliefs of the "good" in society. Dream-like people sit around a skewed-perspective peace conference table. Heroic scientists study lab equipment. Two square-jawed white guys, one holding a shock of wheat, one a big hammer, hold aloft a miniature Earth, while above floats a majestic lighter-than-air Zeppelin. The whole thing is topped with an Earth globe weighing nearly five tons, making it resemble the World's Largest Light Bulb Tower that was built only a year earlier about a mile away. That was probably not a coincidence. Edison, industrial progress, dispelling darkness with a light bulb -- you get the idea. An interpretive sign next to the fountain calls it, "the pinnacle of 1930s public art in New Jersey."
What makes it most memorable, however, are the Evils fleeing the light. There are six, each atop a buttress radiating from the pillar. Death is a skeleton; War a Roman warrior wearing a WWI gas mask; Greed is two entwined octopi; Famine a cadaverous lady; five-headed Materialism spews a ribbon of Stock Market ticker-tape; and Pestilence is a blue woman with yellow spots lying under a horse with a dollar sign on its butt. If this was part of a fright ride, the Evils would abruptly race down hidden rails and soak you with spit.
Waylande used terra cotta to make his sculptures, which enabled him to infuse them with color, a novelty for its time. Unfortunately, terra cotta doesn't age well outdoors, or take long to do it. Within a few years Light Dispelling Darkness was decaying; by the turn of the 21st century a tree was growing out of the globe near Alaska. Middlesex County's Freeholders raised money and the fountain was disassembled, cleaned, patched, and repainted. It was good as new when it was re-unveiled in 2004 -- but since then its faces have again begun to crack, its paint flaking away.
That only adds to its creepy charm, so no rush to repaint for now.
We've visited Light Dispelling Darkness several times, and can't shake the sense that most park patrons barely notice it. Foot traffic in its part of Roosevelt Park goes to the Veterans Memorial next door. The strollers who do venture over seem to regard it as just a pleasant splishy-splashy fountain, not a circle of nightmares. It doesn't help that its colorful sculptures don't reveal themselves as ghouls and monsters until you get close and crouch down, which isn't easy when the fountain's filled with water.
Would Waylande, who died in 1971, be unhappy that modern eyeballs can't seem to perceive his allegory? The evil of obliviousness is one that he apparently didn't capture in terra cotta.