Elsa Ulbricht Works Progress Handicrafts Project for Milwaukee
Elsa Ulbricht was born on March 15, 1885 in Milwaukee. She studied at the Milwaukee Normal School, receiving a degree in education before attending the Pratt Institute in New York, from which she graduated in 1911. Ms. Ulbricht was asked to join the faculty of the art department of the Normal School upon her return from the east. Elsa was influenced by Wisconsin artists during this time and spent the summers of the 1920s and 1930s painting. Her work in teaching and developing a curriculum at the Normal School led to her appointment as the director for the Works Progress Administration Handicrafts Project for Milwaukee. She had a genius for organizing and a determination to get the job done to create in her words, "socially useful and durable art."

Elsa Ulbricht, Artist and Educator   1885-1980
"Our Club" sketch by Elsa Ulbricht
During eight years of the Great Depression, 1935 to 1943, five thousand Milwaukee County residents were lifted from welfare by working on dolls and toys for poor children; wall hangings, rugs and drapes for hospitals, schools and nurseries; and a myriad of other items including furniture, quilts, pillows, book binding, and costumes for theatrical groups. This WPA project became a model for others around the country, with Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Milwaukee to view its productivity. Elsa also saw to it that African Americans were employed by the project at a time when many were being turned away. She believed that everyone had one thing in common - the need for work.

Elsa Ulbricht newspaper image
Elsa taught and developed an amazing variety of subjects in the art department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and its predecessors over the forty-four year period 1911-1955, serving the last two years as head of the department. Elsa was also a founding member of the Wisconsin Players, the Milwaukee Art Institute, and the Wisconsin Designer-Craftsmen. She was an accomplished painter, print-maker, weaver and puppeteer as well as a zealous promoter of crafts as major art forms. Ms. Ulbricht died in Milwaukee on March 13, 1980.

"And still they gazed and still the wonder grew, 
how one small head could carry all she knew." 
-1914 Normal School Graduating Verse on Elsa Ulbricht

 


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