Sunday, November 14, 2010
McCutcheon WPA Mural "Rediscovered" at St. Sebastian's Open House
Inside, I heard someone talking about "the mural," and when I followed someone into a classroom which had been subdivided into two smaller rooms, I turned the corner and saw it.
(The kindergarten mural by Albert McCutcheon at the St. Sebastian School.)
I had never heard of McCutcheon, but I was about to learn a great deal more in just a few hours.
The large mural, painted directly on the wall plaster, is designed to be appealing to the kindergarten class who occupied the room when it was the Durant School, a public school which was sold to St. Sebastian's to use as a school. The church is now hoping to sell it back to the city of Middletown to use as a Senior Center. As such, it is colorful representation of life in Middletown, with local buildings, the Connecticut river, a true bird's-eye view, and, of course, an elephant.
(Janet McCutcheon Batt in front of the mural.)
As I was photographing the outside of the school a woman approached. She told me she was at the open house to see the mural. I followed her into the room.
"Oh my god, they split the room in half," she said. And then looking up at the mural. "The colors. Look at the colors, they've held up so well."
This was Janet McCutcheon Batt, daughter of the artist. It was the first time she had seen the mural in years.
Seeing the mural began a flood of reminiscence as McCutcheon Batt recalled being invited into the kindergarten class as a friend of her cousin who was a student at Durant "I was at Farm Hill," she said.
"They were very discriminatory," Batt remembered. "I was treated well until it was time for a snack, and everyone got one but me."
Childhood bitterness aside, Batt recalled that this mural was her father's first WPA commission, and that he had several others, including a double-panel mural that was created for what was then the Woodrow Wilson High School.
(Batt and her niece Margaret Faber and Faber's son William.)
As we spoke, Batt's niece, Margaret McCuthcheon Faber arrived with her young son William. It was the first time seeing the mural in person for Faber and her son.
"We have a black and white print at home," Batt said of a WPA-era photo copy of the mural. "But it doesn't compare."
Batt was quick to point out that she was the model for the youngest girl pictured in the mural, and that the older girl is her sister Viola McCutcheon Lyman, who is a respected artist herself, and now living in Maine.
Batt told me that her father grew up in a small house around the corner from the school, and that at that time, the landscape was quite different than it is now.
(The McCutcheon homestead on Durant St.)
"They kept horses," Batt said. "The house was surrounded by pastures."
Batt told me that Albert had five brothers, one of who became a concert pianist, one a noted insurance man locally.
(A self-portratit by Albert McCutcheon.)
Albert studied at the Yale School of Fine Arts, and in 1923 continued his studies at the Julien Academy in Paris, where he met his wife, Englishwoman Milder Anderson, also an accomplished painter who had been raised on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. McCutcheon returned to study in Europe several times over the next decade, but he and Anderson settled back home in Middletown, building a home on Marguerite Road, and a studio constructed from materials salvaged from a house that stood at what is now the junction of Crescent Street and Main Street Extension.
As a WPA artist he painted the two murals mentioned above, as well as 15 easel paintings for public institutions around the state.
(McCutcheon's Middletown studio.)
Batt invited me back to her fathers home, which she returned to after her parents died, to see the studio where the works were created. The home is on a hill, in one of those corners of Middletown where a downtown resident like myself looks around to marvel that I'm still in the same city.
The house is filled with the canvases of McCutcheon and his wife Anderson, and the pottery of Batt, who has obviously inherited some of the aesthetic instinct of her father. Batt allowed me to see the modello for the mural that hangs at Woodrow Wilson.