A new deal for art: Depression-era murals restored, headed for newest Portland school

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PORTLAND — The first thing Doug Sherwood had to do when the School Department decided to restore and move two 12-by-15 murals from the Nathan Clifford School was determine who owned them.

“They were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s or 40s,” Sherwood, the department’s facilities director, said. “So we had to get a formal ruling from Washington (D.C.) to find out who owned them.”

Sherwood found out that if Depression-era art commissioned by the WPA was framed and easily removable, it belongs to the federal government. If it’s attached to the wall, it belongs to the municipality.

At Nathan Clifford School, 180 Falmouth St., which was built in 1907 and was replaced last year by the new Ocean Avenue Elementary School, the canvas on which the murals were painted was glued to the wall. That made the art the city’s property.

The two large murals, which used to be in the school’s auditorium, depict two typically Maine scenes: A group of potato farmers in the field and some boaters out for a sail around the bay.

The murals were painted by Ralph Frizzell in 1940 and are now in Boston at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, where they’re being treated and having some minor repairs made. The art conservationists will be stretching and remounting the canvases so they can be rehung after the restoration is complete.

The $40,000 cost of the restoration came out of the budget for the Ocean Avenue Elementary School project. The murals will be installed at the new school once they are restored, likely in late February, Sherwood said.

“(The conservationists are) doing some face-lifting, but they don’t have to do all that much,” Sherwood said.

Additionally, when the Nathan Clifford building was renovated in the 1970s, the workers uncovered a pastel-on-slate mural of Robin Hood in one of the classrooms, also likely from the Depression era.

“This is a work in progress,” Sherwood said of restoring and protecting the slate art.

The mural includes several slate panels depicting scenes from the Robin Hood story, including a marriage scene, Robin Hood shooting a bow and arrow, and a giant elm tree in Sherwood Forest.

The art is unsigned and undated, but Sherwood said art experts in the area speculated it was likely created around the same time as the murals.

But now he has to figure out what will happen to the slate when it’s moved: Is it likely to crack? Will the pastels wipe off if they’re touched?

“There are a lot of questions I still have answer about this one,” he said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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Employees of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center take down one panel of the Depression-era mural that was installed at the Nathan Clifford School in 1940. The mural is being removed and restored, and will be installed in the new Ocean Avenue Elementary School in February.

One panel of a pastel-on-slate mural in one of the classrooms at the Nathan Clifford School, 180 Falmouth St., in Portland. The panels, all depicting scenes from the story of Robin Hood, may be moved to another school if the building, now empty, is sold.

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