Images show a South in the grips of the Depression

There’s the unusual feeling of exploring a time capsule as one moves through the exhibit “The South in Black and White: The Works of James E. Routh Jr., 1939-1946” at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at Georgia Tech.

First, there are the prints themselves created by former Atlantan Routh from studies he drew on a tour of the region from spring 1940 to summer 1941. Whether depicting back-breaking cotton picking in the Mississippi Delta or smokestacks sooting the sky at Atlanta’s old Atlantic Steel mill, these Depression images “picture a world that no longer exists,” as curator Stephen J. Goldfarb terms it in the accompanying catalog.

And then there’s the backstory about the prints themselves — how rarely they have been shown over more than six decades. And how they became the legacy of a promising artist, now 91, who abandoned printmaking for an advertising career after serving in World War II.

This vital work easily could have slipped into obscurity if not for very late interest and scholarship: Lynn Barstis Williams’ 2007 book “Imprinting the South: Southern Printmakers and Their Images of the Region, 1920s-1940s”; and this Georgia Tech exhibit organized by the Georgia Museum of Art (which is closed during expansion construction).

Goldfarb admits he felt a little extra pressure in working on the show. “For me it was a little dicey,” the curator acknowledges, “because Jim’s reputation will largely depend on that catalog.”

Routh expresses great appreciation over the phone from Waynesville, N.C., where he retired in 1983. “I’m most pleased,” he says. “It’s a great moment in my life. These things were done before World War II, a hell of a long time ago, in another life.”

The printmaker says it wasn’t at all his objective in 1940-1941 to capture the South in the grips of the Depression for posterity, but he’s satisfied that they’ve become part of the visual record of that time and place.

“That’s the thing I’m most happy about, to know that the prints have come to that after most of their lives have been spent on basement floors, and some have ended up in Dumpsters,” says Routh, who will be present at a public reception Thursday. “I’m just pleased they mean so much to somebody.”

Maybe they mean so much because they were meaningful to start with. Studying for four years at New York’s Art Students League, where he worked as a studio assistant for master printmaker Will Barnet, Routh had his skills and consciousness raised.

In 1940, he applied for a fellowship to the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which made grants to leading Southern artists and thinkers, including journalist Ralph McGill. Routh wrote in his application letter that he wanted to travel throughout the South and create “a number of pictures concerned simply with scenes of everyday life in the South.”

His interest wasn’t neutral.

“I loved the South and wanted it to be better,” he told the AJC in 1986, at the time of his first exhibit in three decades. “For instance, I saw inhumanity to black people, and I felt I could help change that by drawing it.”

The Rosenwald Fund awarded $1,200 to the New Orleans-born artist, who bought a used Ford for $200 and got rolling. He ultimately made Georgia his main subject, producing 23 of his 29 known prints in the state that had become his boyhood home.

Cotton was still king in the 1940s Georgia that Routh documented in ink wash and watercolor sketches. His were hardly sentimental rural images, revealing people squeezing out a poverty-line existence, their toil causing erosion to the land. Emphasizing their struggle, the figures are dwarfed by the landscapes they tend.

Routh was also drawn to Atlanta, showing it as still largely rural, oblivious to the post-WWII boom that would transform it. You’d have to travel a far piece today to find a scene as country as the one of a farmer behind a mule-drawn plow in “Ashford Dunwoody Road.” There are no outhouses on that tony road these days either. Yet Routh includes a nod to modernity by framing the image with power poles and lines.

The artist produced some of these prints on a used stone tablet lithograph press he purchased from an Atlanta printing firm for $25 before that work was interrupted by his enlistment in the U.S. Army about four months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His unit went ashore at Normandy as part of the invasion.

Discharged in late 1945, he returned to the U.S. and found life in Atlanta, and his artistic impulse, to be different.

“WWII changed things for me,” he later recalled. “I made a few prints in the year or two after ... [but] had no more contact with teachers and friends of [the] pre-war years.”

Abstract Expressionism, an art movement not to his liking, was on the rise, and the drive to make a living won over the one to continue making prints. Hired by the Atlanta advertising firm Burke Dowling Adams (later bought out by Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn) as a commercial artist, he handled the Delta Air Lines account for two decades.

Routh looks back at that fork in the road with little regret after more than six decades. “Life took a different turn,” he says. “BBDO was an exciting ad agency to work for. I think we were the best con men in the country.”

There was an enthusiasm for his new profession and its possibilities that he no longer felt in printmaking. “I didn’t have anything to say anymore,” he recalls matter of factly.

Fortunately, his prints have survived to say plenty.

On view

“The South in Black and White: The Works of James E. Routh Jr., 1939-1946”

Through Oct. 2 at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at Georgia Tech, 500 10th St. N.W. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. Artist reception: 5-7 p.m. Thursday. Free. 404-894-6663, http://ipst.gatech.edu/amp.

A selection of prints by James E. Routh Jr., all printed by 1946, are available for sale by M. Lee Stone Fine Prints of San Jose, Calif., www.mleestonefineprints.com.