74 years ago by W.P.A.
(Appeared on front page of
Fairfield Sun 4/14)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – The large murals had hung there for nearly eight decades, mostly ignored and neglected, until Michael Tetreau and other Fairfield Board of Finance members were on a budget-related tour and happened to eye them. Now they are a focus of town-wide attention and their preservation is in active discussion.
There are five murals in all, covering 248 square feet of space at the tops of the walls in the lobby leading into the auditorium at Tomlinson Middle School, 200 Unquowa Road. They depict the history of Fairfield in Colonial days and were painted by George Avison, an artist that had lived in Norwalk. He was commissioned by the Works Projects Administration back in November 1935 to produce the art and finished in 1937. They were placed in the school, which was then Roger Ludlowe High School, upon completion and have hung there ever since.
To the far left as one enters the lobby, the first scene shows Major Israel Bissell on his ride from Boston to Philadelphia, carrying news about the battle of Lexington and Concord and spurring Colonists to take up the cause of independence.
Of the three murals that sit atop the doors into the auditorium, the mural at left is an early scene from Dwight Academy, showing Dr. Timothy Dwight teaching his first class at Greenfield Hill.
The center mural shows the arrival of Roger Ludlowe, John Mason and followers at the original site of Fairfield as the settlement was founded.
The mural to the right depicts George and Martha Washington visiting Fairfield and being received at the home of Eunice Dennie Burr.
The fifth mural, which hangs above a doorway leading to a corridor and the main part of the school, shows a scene of the Great Swamp fight between the settlers at Southport and the Pequot Indians, a conflict that signaled the end of the Pequot War.
The first look
“It was late February when we visited the school with regard to a capital project to repair some of the façade,” Tetreau recalled. “During the tour, we happened to be standing in the auditorium lobby and I looked up and at the paintings. They were the same paintings I remember from my school days at Tomlinson back in the mid-60s. We suspected they were W.P.A. posters and that they might have value or historical significance. I sent out an email to many friends around town trying to determine if anyone knew anything about them or could suggest next steps in determining their significance and how to go about preserving them. Kathie Griffin was one person I contacted and she had a friend at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, Kathleen Bennewitz. On March 17, Kathie, Kathleen and I, along with Tomlinson Principal Connie Dawson, met at the lobby to take a closer look at the murals.”
A serious initial concern was about the art being out in the open, exposed to dust and dirt, particularly as the murals were already showing signs of wear and tear. Most alarming, though, was how close they were positioned to sprinkler heads in the lobby ceiling. “If the sprinkler system were to go off,” said Tetreau, “they would be destroyed forever.”
Tetreau said Bennewitz took several photographs, noted the artist and said that she would conduct some background research, unaware at that time of the W.P.A. connection. It was Tetreau’s hope that a way could be found to store and preserve the art and, if they really proved to be valuable and significant, to perhaps create a fundraiser effort to save and restore them. He also hoped it would be possible to find a more appropriate place to have them displayed so that all of Fairfield could enjoy them.
Recently endorsed by the Democratic Party to be First Selectman Ken Flatto’s replacement as interim First Selectman when Flatto takes his new job in the Malloy administration, Tetreau said he also reached out to Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Title about the artwork and potential next steps. To date, Title has been buried with budget-related priorities but Tetreau expected they would connect soon.
For her part, Principal Dawson always felt that the murals were very special. She shared with Bennewitz what she knew about the school’s history to aid in her research. This included the knowledge that Roger Ludlowe High School was built in 1925 and that the auditorium was an extension established in 1931. This helped Bennewitz in initially dating the pieces.
Bennewitz, an art historian, was particularly wowed by the murals. “When I first saw them, I was really amazed,” she said. “I knew right away that the art had been made for the lobby as it framed the space and complemented the architecture. I could also tell by the style that they dated back to the 1930s.”
A connection established
It was Fairfield Museum volunteer Barbara Bryan that found a key link that helped in identifying the murals. “Connecticut State Library Archivist Mark Jones had initiated a statewide inventory of W.P.A. artwork, so we had already been focused on the subject matter,” she said. “In our research, we uncovered the Federal Art Project record cards for art that had been placed in Fairfield public schools. These included cards specifically identifying the five murals.”
For each commissioned artwork, the record cards identified artist, title of the work, size, date completed and site where placed.
What was more surprising was that the record cards indicated three other murals had been commissioned for the school as well as one for Dwight, one for the former McKinley School and no less than 11 for the former Lincoln School. The latter had been located on Fairmont Terrace but was torn down in 1960 and is today the site of Lincoln Park.
Coincidentally, in the past week, Fairfield resident Raymond Rasmussen donated to Fairfield Museum one of the 11 W.P.A. works that had been at Lincoln. The piece, titled “Buoys”, a watercolor painted by Beatrice Cuming and completed in Sept. 1937, was initially owned by Peg Nemec, a longtime Fairfield principal at several schools in Fairfield.
Bryan said the W.P.A. period was an interesting time in history and that the commissioned artwork was just one small part of W.P.A. activities in Fairfield in the years 1934 to 1942. “The public works activities were much of what today’s Public Works Dept. is responsible for, including bridge repair, tree planting, grounds maintenance, engineering, etc. Artwork was included as part of the federal government’s efforts to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression.”
In fact, it was the first time in the nation’s history that the government hired hundreds of artists to produce artwork that would be “pleasing to the eye and that could inspire faith in democracy.” Artists were paid an hourly wage and, in all, some 15,000 artworks were created in towns across the country.
“It’s been interesting to suddenly have all this buzz around W.P.A. work,” said Bryan. “We would love to know the whereabouts of the remaining paintings dedicated to the Fairfield schools,” she said, “not so much to have them be part of a museum collection but to just know that they have survived. The state library just wants to inventory them.”
Bennewitz thought that it was wonderful that the artworks had been in the public school for decades inspiring children both visually and historically. She added, “This is an important renewed awareness of something that was ‘lost’ in our collective modern memories and is important for the whole community to celebrate.”
W.P.A. Artist George Avison (1885-1970)
The artist responsible for creating the five murals that today hang in the lobby outside the auditorium at Tomlinson Middle School was born in Norwalk, CT on May 6, 1885. He attended public schools and graduated from Norwalk High School. As a student, he often wrote adventure stories, drew murals on blackboards with colored chalk and, while sitting at trolley stops, sketched passengers.
After graduating, he received art training at the New York School of Art, also known as the Chase school, under William Chase, Robert Henri, Kenneth Hayes Miller, F. Louis Mora and others. He also worked in the studios of Edward Ashe and Frederick C. Yohn, the famous historical painter and illustrator.
Avison was a charter member of the Silvermine Guild of Artists in New Canaan and several other local clubs, leagues and centers. In the 1930s, he worked for the Public Works of Art Project, which led to his working with the W.P.A. Federal Arts Project and resulted in the murals placed at Tomlinson. His mural work is noted for its accuracy in historical detail and a realistic presentation of subject matter.
Over the course of his art career, Avison moved from illustration to landscapes, seascapes and marine paintings, and finally to portraiture. He died in Norwalk in May 1970 at the age of 85.