Printmakers You Should Know: Anthony Velonis

For the last few months we've been taking a look at printmakers who were active during the 1930s. From Dox Thrash's carborundum prints depicting the black experience in 20th-century America, to Elizabeth Olds' renderings of urban working life, these artists helped introduce all kinds of innovations to American printmaking in both medium and subject matter. If there's one medium that has become synonymous with the Federal Art Project, however, it's silkscreen, so today let's take a look at one of its primary innovators, Anthony Velonis (1911-1997).

Velonis with some of his WW2 posters in the background. Image courtesy of

Born in New York, Velonis studied art at the College of Fine Arts at New York University. During his time there he studied several different media, including oil painting, watercolor, and sculpture. He first began exploring silkscreen printing around 1932, while he was working in his brother's sign shop. Working with another artist, Fritz Brosius (and future art director of Time magazine) Velonis skills with silkscreen would come in handy during his tenure with the FAP.

He became involved with the WPA in 1934. Hired by Mayor LaGuardia himself, Velonis's first project was to document and illustrate the local fishermen to help promote the fish market. He created a series of paintings for the project based on first-hand sketches and photographs, developing a deep respect for the fishermen in the process. From there, he was hired as a poster artist, first for the City of New York, then on a federal level as part of the Federal Art Project. Intended to promote everything from public safety announcements to cultural events sponsored by the FAP, these posters advertised everything from art exhibitions to medical announcements.

Anthony Velonis, East Side, West Side Exhibition of Photographs, 1938, silkscreen on paper. Image courtesy of

Anthony Velonis, The W.P.A. Federal Theatre Negro Unit MacBeth, by William Shakespeare, 1936, silkscreen on paper. Image courtesy of Often referred too as the Voodoo MacBeth, this production was directed by Orson Welles and starred an all-black cast.

Anthony Velonis, Free Summer Classes for High School Students, 1936, silkscreen on paper. Image courtesy of

Anthony Velonis, The Only Safe Weapons Against Cancer are Surgery, X-Rays, and Radium, 1938, silkscreen on paper. Image courtesy of

At this time, posters were painted by hand, which was time-consuming process. Recognizing an opportunity to make the poster design process more efficient, Velonis recommended adding a silkscreen department. With his own experience as a painter, Velonis also saw an opportunity to transform what had been a primarily commercial medium into a fine art, and used his skills as an artist to create beautiful compositions. Velonis's innovations would greatly enhance the poster department, though his ultimate goal was to promote silkscreen as a fine art medium. Indeed, he would invent a new term for the process, serigraphy, to help distinguish it from its commercial counterparts, though he would not take personal credit for the term.

Anthony Velonis, Washington Square, 1939, serigraph with oil-based ink on paper. Image courtesy of

Velonis's non-poster prints often concentrate on urban daily life, whether it's a view of  park or a local subway stop. In contrast to printmakers like Olds, his work doesn't carry the same overtly political connotations, but rather are opportunities for him to explore the formal qualities of silkscreen printing as a creative medium.

Anthony Velonis, Local Stop, 1939, silkscreen on paper. Image courtesy of

Anthony Velonis, 6:30 PM, 1938, silkscreen on paper. Image courtesy of

Anthony Velonis, Young Girl, 1939, silkscreen on paper. Image courtesy of

Velonis further cemented his significance to serigraphy when he a wrote a pamphlet called Technical Problems of the Artist: Technique of the Silkscreen Process. This booklet was distributed to WPA art centers on a national scale, and would help bolster the medium's visibility and popularity during the 1940s. Velonis also contributed a similar article to the Magazine of Art, introducing silkscreen to yet another national audience.

In 1939, Velonis's employment with the Federal Art Project came to an end. In conjunction with four other colleagues, he founded the Creative Printmakers Group, a collaborative that included a silkscreen studio. Although the initial intent was to promote fine art printmaking, Velonis ended up taking on a lot of commercial work too in order to keep the business afloat. In 1942, he was drafted into the US Army Air Forces, and spent the war designing recruiting posters and training aids. By the time he returned to the Creative Printmakers Group, his business had expanded to more than 100 employees, and most of his time was taken up with administrative work. After his retirement, he resumed making prints again, sometimes revisiting themes from his earlier life in 1930s New York.

Anthony Velonis, Memory of the Depression, 1985, silkscreen and pochoir on paper. Image courtesy of

As a printmaker, Velonis's own output was somewhat curtailed due to the demands of his business, though he still managed to produce a lot of images.  Through his own technical achievements and publications, however, he left a significant impact on serigraphy as a medium, helping to bolster its popularity among American audiences. He is definitely a printmaker you should know.

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