Calling the WPA paintings that long adorned the meeting room at Town Hall “important artifacts for the town,” New Canaan’s highest elected official said the art work will grace an open, second-story hallway in the atrium of the newly renovated and expanded facility.
A pair of 78-by-115-inch paintings by Walter Bradnee Kirby that imagined aerial views of New Canaan in 1834 and 1934, respectively, will be showcased under the skylight of the addition at Town Hall, according to First Selectman Rob Mallozzi.
Following discussions among members of the Town Hall Building Committee, those paintings—two of 20 WPA paintings that belong to the town, according to an inventory on file with the New Canaan Department of Public Works—will sit in shadow box-like cases that protrude about four inches from the wall. Mallozzi said he would like to see a protective plexi-glass or something similar around them, as well.
“They are going to be the focal point of our art work in our Town Hall just as the Historical Society focuses on certain artifacts for the town on their display, the Town Hall wants to focus the public’s attention on these paintings that were part of the WPA New Canaan effort, and that has always been vision: To showcase them.”
The paintings were originally commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, a Depression-era government program developed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative. From 1935 to 1943 the WPA created jobs for 8 million U.S. citizens for their public works projects—ranging from highways, buildings and bridges to smaller projects that involved music, literary works and art.
One area artist was Wilton resident Ralph Lewis Nelson, best known for his collaboration with James Montgomery Flagg for the definitive caricature of Uncle Sam used in the iconic “I Want You” military recruiting posters. Nelson was commissioned to create works of art to be displayed in public buildings throughout the area, including several murals that originally hung in New Canaan’s Center School from 1934 until the school’s closing in 1983.
Some WPA paintings now are on display in New Canaan’s three elementary schools, as well as the historical society, though most are in storage.
They include several farm scenes of New Canaan and images of Mead Park in the 1930s, such as the (then) newly created children’s wading pool whose only existing remnant is the colonnade.
Some of those scenes used to adorn the upper hallway outside the first selectman’s offices at Town Hall, and it isn’t clear just where they’ll go once Town Hall reopens.
“They are a treasure,” Mallozzi said.
Here’s a look at some of the works, as well as some images of workers safeguarding them for storage:
One of four farm scenes commissioned as part of the WPA arts projects, by Ralph Lewis Nelson (1885-1967), dated 1935. Dimensions: 24.5x38.5". Man with automatic seeder.