Historic Murals Grace Ocean Avenue Elementary School
Students returning to Ocean Avenue Elementary School (OAES) in Portland after the winter vacation discovered artwork on the walls that looked familiar to some of them. Over the break, workers installed the two historic murals that had decorated the former Nathan Clifford Elementary School.
The Depression-era murals depicting Maine fishermen and potato farmers were painted by Ralph Frizzell in the early 1940s as a commission from the Works Progress Administration. After Clifford was closed in 2011, the school department went to great lengths to preserve, restore and move the murals to the new school attended by many of the same families.
Planning for the murals’ move actually began when architects designed Ocean Avenue Elementary School. They provided a secure backing for the murals’ installation.
Douglas Sherwood, the district’s facilities coordinator, spent a year seeking legal permission to remove the artwork from Clifford and relocate it to OAES. He eventually received a ruling from the office of the chief architect of the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C. stating that since the murals were mounted to the wall instead of framed, they belonged to the municipality rather than the federal government.
Using project funds, the city of Portland hired Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts to remove, restore and install the murals. A team from the conservation center removed the murals from Clifford in December, brought them to Williamstown for treatment and restoration and then installed them on February 22 at Ocean Avenue Elementary School.
Students and staff returning from February vacation were delighted to see the panels. “Classes are stopping each time as they go through the hall to appreciate the art work,” said OAES Principal Beverly Coursey. She heard one student remark, “They look so much brighter than I remember.”
The murals go with the new school’s themes honoring Maine's connection to farms and the ocean. Said one staff member, “It feels right to have them here.”