Preserving historic art a priority in planning new Brunswick school

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BRUNSWICK — As the School Department continues to plan a $28 million elementary school on Jordan Avenue, efforts are also being made to preserve an unexpected feature in the buildings being replaced: the art.

At the April 11 meeting of the School Board, board member William Thompson relayed the progress of the Public Art Subcommittee, which he chairs.

The group has been tasked, in part, with evaluating stored art from other schools in the district that might be used in the new school.

And, while some art being stored at the old Jordan Acres School was able to be moved for the group’s examination, one work – a large and winding mural depicting the development of Brunswick over time – isn’t so portable.

The piece, which Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said was painted by an artist named F. Wellman ahead of the original Jordan Acres School’s opening in 1973, is painted directly on the building’s drywall.

As a result, two members of the art committee, Coffin Elementary School Art Teacher Amy Crosby and Mark Wethli, a professor of art at Bowdoin College, have been developing a plan to preserve the mural and incorporate it in the new school through photos.

Jordan Acres Elementary was permanently closed in 2011, and the new elementary school, projected to begin construction this summer, will be built in its place. The new school will also replace the aging, at-capacity Coffin Elementary School.

Crosby said Perzanoski first asked her to take a look at the mural a few months ago to see if it could possibly be removed from the wall. However, after seeing the work had been painted with either oil or acrylic paint directly on Sheetrock, Crosby said she realized moving it would be impossible.

She and her husband, Nick Carter, were then asked to go to the old Jordan Acres School to photograph the mural in an attempt to preserve it a different way.

Crosby said the painting, which depicts several different seasons of Brunswick’s evolution, is “impressive in its size.” The scenes in the mural depict Native Americans, colonists farming, and Brunswick’s rail system, among others.

The painting also highlights different facets of the local economy, such as Brunswick’s use as a seaportpeople logging and working in the snow.

“The story it tells through the pictures is fascinating,” Crosby said.

Wethli said the digital process of preserving the piece may be two-fold, though “there are various ‘ifs’ in the plan, depending on various factors.”

“The plan is to photograph it as well as possible and ‘stitch’ the photos together in Photoshop in order to preserve it in high-resolution digital form,” he said. “From that we’re planning to copy and crop key scenes from the mural into frame-able sizes (so) that it may be displayed in the new library.”

Although Perzanoski said the committee has so far been unable to find out more information on Wellman or the circumstances under which the artist painted the mural, another member of the building committee, Phil Dionne, said he remembers when it was painted.

Dionne was chairman of the original Jordan Acres School building committee in the early 1970s, and said he recalls the process for choosing which artistic concept would be installed in the school.

The mural’s creator, Dionne said, was “a local fellow” who completed the mural the last few weeks before the school opened to students.

Dionne said the way the mural “flowed around the library” in the original Jordan Acres school is part of its charm.

Making art a focus in designing new schools, he added, is not a new concept. In addition to working for the Maine State Board of Education for 18 years, Dionne has served on five separate building committees for Brunswick schools.

Dionne spoke about the Percent for Art program, which in Maine mandates “1 (percent) of the construction appropriation” for new or renovated buildings funded by taxpayer dollars is allocated for acquiring works of art, with a cap of $50,000. 

Because Brunswick’s new elementary school is being built with “100 percent local moneys,” Dionne said, planners could have chosen not to take art into consideration, but they opted to.

Ultimately, Crosby said, the art committee is still “very early” in its public art decisions regarding the new school, but the district’s artistic history is a priority.

“We do know that we’d like to honor and memorialize past artwork in some capacity,” she said, “whether that’s taking photos of it, or using a piece of the work and integrating it into the new space.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

As part of the planning of a new $28 million elementary school in Brunswick, the Public Art Subcommittee is working on a way to preserve a mural from Jordan Acres School and incorporate it into the new building. The mural depicts the history of Brunswick and was painted in 1973 by F. Wellman. 

The mural, which was painted on the wall outside the Jordan Acres School library, includes scenes of Native Americans.

The final scene in the mural depicts winter in Brunswick, and people working in the snow in more modern clothing.

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