Masterpiece murals

Amid recession, more notice and appreciate WPA-era paintings in Gloucester celebrating American ideals

Charles Allan Winter's 'City Council in Session.''
Charles Allan Winter's "City Council in Session.''
By David Cogger
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2009
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At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, unemployment was near 25 percent. Bread lines and boarded-up factories dominated the landscape, and fear ruled the day. With millions of Americans turning to the government for jobs and hope, newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt devised an alphabet soup of federally funded stimulus programs known as The New Deal to create jobs and improve infrastructure.

Among the programs was the Works Progress Administration, which employed 5,000 people for $25 to $35 per week to create art for public display. Now-famous artists such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock worked for the WPA.

This region offers some of the finest WPA murals, including Gloucester City Hall, the Topsfield Public Library, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, and the Ipswich Post Office. In Gloucester, there is a new buzz about the murals, thanks to a group of artists and volunteers who are cataloging the work and making it more accessible to the public.

A recent grant allowed the Gloucester Committee for the Arts to hire local artist Susan Erony to lecture on the murals, oversee the documentation, and to assess their condition. Erony sees her work as an opportunity to address not only the murals as artwork, but also what they represented.

"When I joined the committee and became aware of the WPA mural collection, I was floored," Erony said. "If this fabulous collection of murals can be used as a locus for a discussion on the arts and the roles of artists in society under the New Deal, if they could be a door into an educational and thoughtful examination of a time relevant to our present situation, how wonderful," Erony said. "Perhaps we as a community in Gloucester at least can look at the past and think differently and creatively about the present and future."

Charles Allan Winter painted most of the murals at City Hall. In 1933, he came to Gloucester, designated by the government to create work for display in public buildings. Winter and his wife, Alice Beach Winter, a suffragette, political activist, and artist known for her commercial work - notably the cover of the Ivory Soap box - lived in the Red Cottage in East Gloucester, which became a haven for WPA artists.

"They were true believers and brought some of the most significant painters to Gloucester," said Erony of the Winters.

In 1934, Winter painted "The Founding of Gloucester," which hangs behind the stage in the main hall. Erony points out the members of the Dorchester Company, the first European settlers who came to Gloucester in 1623 to create a commercial colony. A Native American figure smoking a peace pipe appears to be watching members of the company as they unload their supplies. The city fathers occupy the upper left, discussing their plans for the building of the city. Their faces are recognizable portraits of the early officials. Fishermen toting mackerel and haddock, a gill-netter and a woman weaving, her family at her side . . . the painting is jammed with images, including an allegorical figure seen recording history with a quill pen as it happens. A young boy looking out from the canvas represents the future.

"The painting's subject matter is social and political," Erony said. "The point of view was celebratory of American ideas - future, acceptance of diversity, visualization of ideals of the WPA. It could have been seen as propaganda in a way."

Winter also painted "Civic Virtues," which covers three walls outside of the tax collector's office. The mural depicts responsibilities of municipal government, with the mayor, aldermen, and journalists gathered around a table.

"The murals had a specific agenda," said Erony. "They were supposed to instill pride and educate people about the region they were in."

The Gloucester murals have a special hold on many in this city synonymous with artists who have settled here over the years, captivated by its light conditions and picturesque harbor crowded with wharves and fishing boats. Other people are unaware of the significance of the work.

"We sometimes live with something so long that we never see it," said arts committee chairwoman Judith Hoglander. "My observation prior to our project was that people would go to City Hall, do their business, and not pay attention. We thought we should draw attention to them."

"We live with the murals and they are so beautiful," she said. "They are pictures of real people, and we all have a very strong sense of history. They should be preserved."

Two residents in City Hall that day to conduct business pointed out relatives in two murals.

"Those who appear in some of the pictures - they are dying; they are old," said Hoglander. "We need to do interviews to have a historical record of memories. Time's a wasting."

A mural entitled "Education" hangs in the mayor's office. The painting depicts the Gloucester High School's graduating class of 1935. There are 38 portraits of students in the piece, representing disciplines such as music, art, science, and athletics.

"The girls are equal in what they are doing," Erony said. "They are not depicted as homemakers; they have high aspirations for all of the students."

She credits much of the research work to a former intern, Bethany Jay, who is now completing her PhD in US history.

Although there is much work to be done now, Erony has a wish that looks ahead.

"I want Gloucester to have a WPA program again," she said with a wry smile.

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