Tag Archives: Public Art

Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, Olde Salem Greens was carved out of Highland Park, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?

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Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.

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Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.


Conflagration Commemoration

Across the Atlantic, the year-long commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Great London Fire of 1666 is peaking this weekend, today actually, with a contained conflagration: a 400-foot wooden replica of the seventeenth-century city will go up in flames on the Thames at 8:30 pm tonight. This is only one spectacular event amidst many creative ventures  organized by the arts production company Artichoke, which seeks to”transform people’s lives and change the world through extraordinary art” along with other institutional purveyors. The Artichoke events include illuminations, projections, lectures, interactive performances, pub crawls, a “fire food market” and “fire garden”, all offered under the umbrella of “London’s Burning”, while London’s more traditional institutions are offering a variety of thematic exhibitions and displays. It’s a very complete commemoration, befitting a transformative event in London’s–and Britain’s–history.

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Fire of London model Flames projected onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the symbol of post-Fire London. Photograph: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images;  the David Best-designed wooden model to be set on fire tonight @artichoketrust.

Fire has played such a huge role in London’s history–not only in the seventeenth century, but also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when another Great Fire of 1834 leveled much of Westminster and the Blitz destroyed much of the central City. The commemoration of tragedy in general, and fires in particular, must necessarily focus on loss and devastation but also on rebuilding–and how the process of rebuilding reflects on the particular society that is engaged in it. I think an incandescent commemoration of 1666 is appropriate because it will illuminate the loss at least as much as the rebuilding–which has always been the focus in remembrance of this particular Great Fire: Wren’s London. We don’t even know how many people died over those three burning days: we have precise knowledge of property damage but a woeful lack of comprehension about the human toll. When the Fire burnt itself out late in the day on September 5 it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and left up to 200,000 people homeless, but how many people?  Who knows: anywhere from hundreds to thousands (doubtless including anonymous souls who had survived the preceding plague year), yet we still seem to repeat the ridiculous number of only six verified deaths. Then as now, it seems that we can only begin to process the enormity of destruction in a visual and structural way.

Griffier I, Jan, c.1645-1718; The Great Fire of London, 1666

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The paintings of Dutch artist Jan Griffier I (c. 1645-1718), who came to London just after the Great Fire, seem to be particularly influential depictions: his view of the burning of Ludgate (Museum of London Collection) was reproduced in scores of prints over the next century and a half (Trustees of the British Museum).


Samantha Should Go

If I were Queen of Salem for a day the very first thing I would do is smite Samantha. I like Bewitched and Elizabeth Montgomery as much as the next person, but a television character has no business occupying such a prominent parcel in Salem in statue form–especially such a bad statue. I think public art should either be beautiful or significant and Samantha is neither: she should go. I never really understood exactly how she was deposited right there, in Lappin Park on Town House Square, in June of 2005. It was a deal struck between the TV Land television channel, who commissioned the statue from StudioEIS in Brooklyn, then-mayor Stanley Usovicz, and the Salem Redevelopment Authority. Is she supposed to be with us forever? I was in one of my periodic disengagement-from-Salem-because-it-is-driving-me-crazy moods at the time so I wasn’t among the protesters, but even one of the statue’s creators admitted it was crass at the time:

“If I were one of the people who had a house on the beautiful common there, would I hate it?” asked Ivan Schwartz, sitting at a conference table last week and discussing the Samantha statue. “Yes, probably. But it seems like [Salem] was going down that path long before this TV Land thing ever surfaced.” (Washington Post)

Well, Mr. Schwartz is correct: Salem has been “Witch City” for quite a while, which is why my feelings towards Samantha have evolved: I don’t really want to destroy her anymore, I’d just like to move her–to a less prominent and more appropriate place–where she can represent Witch City rather than Salem. Maybe in front of the Witch Museum? That’s a perfect pairing.

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The Samantha Statue in Lappin Park (somewhat dressed for winter, but before our recent snow), courtesy Destination Salem.

So who or what could replace Samantha?  That is a difficult question, despite, or perhaps because of, Salem’s rich history.

An “old planter”?  Well we already have the magisterial statue of Salem founder Roger Conant by the Common. Unfortunately he is often mistaken for a “witch” because of his proximity to the Witch Museum as well–maybe he and Samantha could trade places? No, I think not.

Accused “witches”?  Well, we already have the subtle but stately Witch Trials Memorial on Charter Street. This is a reflective place (when it is not full of tourists eating sausage rolls on its memorial benches) deserving of its official status, but is could be supplemented by a more humanistic installation at Town House Square, I suppose. Statues of Bridget Bishop and George Jacobs–the victims from Salem Town?  Philip English–who escaped, survived, and sought revenge? My very favorite memorial to a witch-trial victim is the relief sculpture of Katharina Henot, burned at the stake in Cologne in 1627, in which she is paired with Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest who served as a participant/confessor in several witch trials before he wrote an extremely influential indictment of such proceedings (the Cautio Criminalis (1631)), on a facade of the Cologne City Hall. They are actually quite modern creations, one of 124 relief figures carved for the exterior of the Rathaus. The Lappin Park site is a courtyard, rather than a building, so I think we need to go for something/someone more freestanding.

Rathausturm Koeln - Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, Katharina Henot

Samuel McIntire? Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors from Salem? Timothy Pickering? One of the Derbys? We already have a great statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne on Hawthorne Boulevard. The great philanthropist Captain John Bertram and/or his granddaughter Caroline Emmerton, founder of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association? If I had my druthers (which I would, because I would be Queen), I’d probably go with Captain Luis Fenollosa Emilio of the Massachusetts 54th, a Salem native and author of The Brave Black Regiment (1891). He fought with the 54th for three years and was the sole surviving officer of the ferocious battle of Ft. Wagner in 1863: he deserves commemoration somewhere.

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Captain Luis F. Emilio of the Mass 54th and 23rd, Library of Congress.

If I step down from my throne, however, I think it’s probably best to install something less literal and more abstract or conceptual in this particular location: something that could speak to as many people as possible and really make both passersby and crowds stop and think (or at least stop). I could even go in a more whimsical direction: the people who like the Samantha statue generally mention its “whimsy” but I think whimsy has to emanate from good art and Samantha looks like she is sitting on a turd rather than a cloud. We can do better.

Just to get the ideas flowing, I rounded up some of my favorite installations: most are public, some I have seen in person rather than just in pictures, some are memorials and some are just “statues”, all are (in my humble opinion) just great.

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Philip Jackson (b. 1944), Reading Chaucer, Portland Gallery, London.

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One of Bruno Catalano’s Voyageurs in Marseilles–travelers with missing parts!

Statue Shoes Budapest

The extremely poignant installation of “Shoes on the Danube” in Budapest by Gyuala Pauer and Can Togny, dedicated “to the memory of the victims shot by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45”.

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A “house” with roots by Leandro Erlich at the Summer Festival in Karlsruhe, Germany via Designboom. (I would LOVE to see something like this in Salem–a 17th century house!)

Appendix: Just adding a few lines as this post was shared quite widely on Salem Facebook groups and there was a lot of commentary that readers of the blog won’t see. Lots of love for Samantha; she is widely credited (not the statue so much as the television character and show, which filmed in Salem in 1970-71) for saving Salem from the wasteland that it was becoming at that time. So the statue is seen as a symbol of revival through witchcraft tourism. Also: tourists love her so she should stay, she’s “whimsical” so she should stay. There were some people that supported a move: to the Willows & the Hawthorne Hotel in particular. No support for Captain Emilio!


Remembering Dr. Warren

I have never been a formal student of memory and memorial culture, but the process, expressions, and artifacts of remembrance have fascinated me from the time that I was a little girl, growing up just down the street from the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead on the Justin Smith Morrill Memorial Highway (which we knew just as the road to South Strafford) in Strafford, Vermont and then moving to the equally past-focused town of York, Maine. Here in Salem, memorials are all around me, and some I take notice of on a regular basis while others escape my attention–why? I’ve been thinking about the distinction between individual and collective memorialization for some time: in the past, initiatives seem to have focused on the remembrance of individuals while we focus on the event, or the collective victims and/or participants related to that event. This seems like a basic divide between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it was really driven home to me as I walked around Savannah last week. Savannah is a city of statues as much as it is of squares: these two distinguishing features go hand in hand. I did not take a precise inventory, but those statues erected to the memory of individuals definitely made a firmer impression on my memory, although sometimes (as in the notable case of Forsyth Park) you can see both, side by side.

Confederate and McLaws Statues Savannah

The Confederate War Memorial and Lafayette McLaws Statue in Forsyth Park, Savannah.

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, at which over 350 men died, and many, many more were wounded: more British than American. It was truly a Pyrrhic victory for the British, and therefore ultimately inspirational for the Americans, as was the tragic death of Dr. Joseph Warren, prominent Son of Liberty, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the man who enlisted Paul Revere and William Dawes to put out the word that the British were indeed coming, and newly-commissioned Major General, who nonetheless engaged in the battle as a private soldier with a borrowed musket. Warren was shot in the face by his assailant and thrown in a mass grave by the British after the battle, but his body was recovered months later by Revere and his younger brother John, a Salem doctor, even after his martyrdom had been established by John Trumbull’s iconic painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. The Doctor Patriot has been memorialized in many ways: through the naming of towns across New England and the United States, streets (I’m not sure about Warren Street here in Salem), statutes and statues. The first Bunker Hill Memorial was a Warren Memorial, erected by his Masonic brothers; it was replaced by the 221-foot-high obelisk commemorating the entirety of the battle in 1843. But Dr. Warren did not retreat from the field entirely: an adjacent exhibit lodge was built in the late nineteenth century to house his statue, one of several in Boston. While I certainly would not want to displace the statue of Colonel William Prescott that stands before the Bunker Hill Monument, I would also like to see Dr. Warren there, outside, although maybe that would spoil that stark individual vs. collective aesthetic of the site.

Warren by Trumbull MFA

Warrens Death 1775

Warren Memorial Bunker Hill 1794

Bunker Hill Monument BPL 1920

Bunker Hill Monument and Prescott

Warren Statue by Dexter

Warren Statue Roxbury

Warren Tavern

John Trumbull’s Death of General Warren, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Frontispiece to the H.H. Brackenridge play The Battle of Bunkers-hill: a dramatic piece, of five acts, 1776, Library of Congress; Masonic Warren Memorial on Bunker Hill and present day Bunker Hill Monument in 1920, Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library, and today, with Colonel William Prescott “on guard”; Photograph of the Masonic Warren Statue by Henry Dexter, Southworth and Hawes, 1851, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Warren Memorial Statue on Warren Street in his native Roxbury, before it was removed to West Roxbury by a street widening project (Roxbury wants it back), Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library; the Warren Tavern in Charlestown, built as a “memorial” of sorts to Warren in 1780.


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