Sinking Ships? East Boston Fights To Save Library Paintings
When East Boston gets its new, state-of-the-art public library branch this fall, visitors will not see something that’s been beloved for decades in the old library: a series of historic maritime paintings.
Only a few of the works — which were commissioned as part of the Works Progress Administration’s public art project during the Great Depression — will be on display in a room designed just for them. But the future of these paintings is still in question.
‘They Have To Live On’
“I did my homework under these paintings,” 69-year-old Maddy McComiskey told me when I visited her library. She grew up in East Boston and spent a lot of time here as a kid.
“I was first generation Italian,” she recalled. “It was my way of dreaming. Because in those days nobody had money to take a bus and go to Florida — and I’m saying a bus because in those days if you went to Florida you went on a bus, not a plane.”
The whalers and clippers in the vintage paintings transport you to a time when travel and commerce dominated the seas. Rockport artist Frederick Leonard King painted the “Ships Through the Ages” series in 1934 and 1935 specifically for the first library branch in East Boston. He was one of thousands of artists put to work during the Great Depression by FDR’s Works Progress Administration. King’s mural-style paintings were cut up, framed and moved to the current library on Meridian Street in the 1950s.
Resident Susan Brauner is taken by the artist’s regal vessels that seem to sail around the room. She says they evoke the neighborhood’s nautical past.
“Old Ironsides, the Constitution, the Flying Cloud, that was actually made here in East Boston about 100 yards away from the current library,” Brauner said. “A third one that features Spanish ships that certainly reflects our heritage of the Latino and Spanish community.”
But the WPA paintings are looking pretty shabby, which breaks Brauner and McComiskey’s hearts. They’re members of the Friends of the East Boston Library, a group that raises awareness and money for their branch. They’ve also been leading a fight to restore and preserve these paintings.
McComiskey said that while thousands of WPA artworks have been conserved and cataloged by the federal government, many others have been lost, destroyed or neglected.
“These paintings are disappearing off the canvas. And it’s a shame because they are national treasures and the people of the United States should be able to look at WPA paintings in a good light — in a light that art should be looked at — and as Roosevelt said, free art for everyone,” McComiskey said.
“Unfortunately over the years between exposure to the elements, etc., they’re losing a great deal of paint at the very least, as you can see in the test parts on some of the pictures,” Brauner said, pointing to the dirt veiling King’s paintings.
“And the frames are losing the battle to stay on them,” she added with a little laugh tinged with disbelief. “They are separating from their backings.”
Then we went upstairs to a large, gated-off room filled with boxes and dust. Brauner pulled out a six-foot-long work featuring the Governor Ames, the Gertrude L. Thebaud and the last American square-rigger. This could be the poster child for the conservation campaign. There’s bubbling and layers of grime. The painting suffered water damage after a fire.
“And this was absolutely drenched at the time,” Brauner lamented. “Which explains some of the problems with the poor, bedraggled painting.”
As you can imagine, cleaning and restoring 14 works isn’t cheap, and the Friends of the East Boston Library has been hitting up neighborhood businesses and organizations for the past few years. But they faced another dilemma: As Eastie’s new, contemporary branch was being designed, they learned the King series did not fit into the plans. The idea that these public works would be taken out of public view disappointed supporters and other residents.
“I’d probably cry,” Anne Marie Howell admitted. “They have to be there. They have to live on.”
Howell has lived in East Boston for 25 years and remembers many afternoons gazing into the paintings’ watery vistas.
“And I think about them at night before going to bed, and then I come back to see if what I visualized is what was up there. It’s truly a gift for East Boston that people should be more aware of and utilize,” she said, then corrected herself and elaborated: “I don’t think it’s the fact of being unaware, it’s the fact of knowing what’s in your neighborhood, you know?”
The Friends of the East Boston Library have set out not only to restore all 14 King paintings, but also to make sure they will hang on the walls in the new building that opens in November. Brauner and McComiskey contacted administrators at the main Boston Public Library to ask for help, and after many letters, emails and phone calls met with BPL president Amy Ryan.
“Everyone got the importance of the paintings,” Ryan recalled in her Copley Square office. “And then there’s the importance of building a library for services. For the books, for the computers, for the seating. How today’s users really use a branch library.”
But they reached a compromise: Four of the WPA paintings will be displayed in their own room at the new branch. They’ll be rotated out each year.
As for restoring the paintings, Ryan says the BPL is the steward of 22 million rare items of cultural significance and just doesn’t have the money to conserve all of them.
“The restoration of the paintings ranges from $7,000 per painting to $21,000 per painting depending on the size and the condition. So the Friends have taken that on as a fundraising goal which is great,” Ryan said. “But that isn’t within the reach of our resources.”
What the BPL can do, though, is safely store the dilapidated paintings in the print department as they await rehabilitation. But there’s still the matter of funding. The Eastie branch supporters need to raise an estimated $150,000 on their own. So far they have about $3,500. But the volunteers are encouraged and even a bit surprised that their effort is bringing together diverse groups in East Boston: for example, the thousands of El Salvadorans in the neighborhood.
“We believe as immigrants that we need to rescue and trace our origins as a way to place ourselves and to fit in and to flourish,” said Jose Aleman, the El Salvadoran consul general.
The consulate is collecting small donations in its busy waiting room in East Boston. For Aleman, restoring the paintings together is a way for different immigrant waves to connect.
“And we don’t want to see it as a contrast, but pretty much as a continuation of the search for people from afar to a place they can call home,” he reflected. “From the ones who descended from boats, to the one who came perhaps from the southern border to here by the bus, by Greyhound.”
When the new East Boston library opens, works by local El Salvadoran artists will be on display just steps away from the King paintings. For now, though, the immediate goal for the Friends of the Easton Boston Library is to get “Old Ironsides” restored for the ribbon cutting in November. They’re only halfway there, and Brauner admits she’s very concerned about not being able to raise the rest.
The Friends of the East Boston Library will have a table Saturday at East Boston Pride Day with pictures and information on the restoration project.