By Marjorie Nesin
---- — GLOUCESTER — If the City Hall WPA murals could talk, they’d tell stories of councilmen smoking celebratory cigars in hallways, warm winter nights perched above hissing radiators, and tales of all the dust kicked up since Charles Allen Winter first painted them back in the 1930s.
That’s why a handful of the murals high on the walls of the first floor of City Hall are undergoing restoration which will continue over the next three weeks. Smoke and urban grit build up has borne down on the paintings overtime and some cleaning and retouching with acrylic paint had already begun to sharpen and enhance the paintings by the end of the first session Tuesday.
Gloucester’s Committee for the Arts worked for years to raise the $28,000 that will fund a restoration of the murals that provide character to the City Hall, according to Catherine Ryan, the mayor’s representative on the committee.
“A lot of this art has waited over 75 years for attention and their time has come,” Ryan said. “It’s a lot of work that has gotten us to this point, and it’s going to be continued work.”
Funding for restoration stemmed from seARTS grants, Massachusetts Cultural Council funding and Community Preservation Act appropriations. Individuals and local foundations also chipped in, according to Ryan.
The committee hired Peter Williams Museum Services to retouch and conserve the art, work that the company’s owner, Peter Williams, said had likely never been done on the City Hall’s murals.
“It isn’t often that cities can afford to do this and it takes a lot of time for people to realize they’re dirty,” Williams said.
With the help of painting conservators Jackie Trombley and Stephanie Angelo, the murals should be refreshed in three weeks time, with the two women working about four hours a day, three days a week.
Trombley crouched down on scaffolding above the entrance to Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s office Tuesday, thumbing through a tool box of acrylic paints. Angelo stood feet away dabbing a brown acrylic onto golden tiles, then running a forefinger across the fresh paint, smoothing her retouching into the original oil brush strokes that Winter made in the early 1930s.
You could almost outline the areas of the aptly titled City Government mural that Trombley and Angelo have repaired. The painted portraits of friends, neighbors and relatives of many still living in Gloucester now pop from the wall. A nurses’s white-collared dress seems freshly laundered, the greyed sky has morphed back to its sunny day blue.
Williams explained that we see cracks in the paint where radiator heat has harshly cracked or chipped the paint over years as well as areas where the edges of the original canvas have begun to peel back or separate in the middle of a mural that spans two canvases.
Along with the city government mural above the mayor’s office, the conservators will also repair “City Council in Session,” a mural above the tax collector’s office, and the mural “Civic Virtues” that spans two archways in the lobby area.
Conservators will also reinvigorate the mural called “Poetry” displayed above the clerks office, which could prove to be the toughest project, since it has suffered damage from a radiator located directly below it. But, said Williams, conserving these pieces is an ode to an artist whose fame has failed to match his level of skill.
”Because Winter did this kind of work —magazine illustrations and murals— his art doesn’t get sold in galleries much, and collectors don’t recognize his work, so he’s not as well known,” Williams said.
But Williams, who began his career as a paintings conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, called Winter’s work — especially the murals filled with portraits of community members — “fearless” and “ingenious.”
”Each portrait is a portrait, but also a mental state, an attitude,” Williams said.
The conservators and members of Gloucester’s Committee for the Arts encourage Gloucesterites, especially those who might recognize an older family member acting as one of the many characters in one of Winter’s murals, to venture over to City Hall and watch the work in progress.
”Winter saw that every person in the community had a place,” Williams said. “Everybody counted, everyone was part of it.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.