By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
DEARBORN – Salina Intermediate School’s Depression-era murals, created through the Public Works of Arts Project, were almost lost when the former kindergarten rooms were converted to a conference room and principal’s office.
Created on-site during the Great Depression by children’s book illustrator Edward G. McCandlish (1887-1946), the vibrant, hand-painted murals feature 13 Mother Goose nursery rhymes, as well as a poem by American poet Eugene Field.
When the younger students were relocated to newer and nearby Salina Elementary, removal of the murals was proposed until social studies teacher Linda Hallick, who retired in 2013, encouraged their preservation.
Hallick said she initially dedicated herself to preserving the school’s historical documents, which were scattered throughout the building, when she started teaching at Salina in 1994.
“It became a mission of preserving history,” Hallick said. “I don’t think we do a very good job of that in this country.”
She said when the kindergarten room remodeling was proposed, there was talk in the district of removing the wall-mounted murals and the hand-crafted wooden benches in the room.
“I was just appalled by the idea,” Hallick said. “If you start touching those murals, even though most of them are on boards, you don’t know what will happen to them. Are they going to end up in a storeroom somewhere forever?”
She encouraged the district to leave the murals in the richly appointed, wood-paneled room.
“It’s a beautiful room, a room that invites conversation about the murals, and the fireplace,” she said.
The fireplace has a wooden, hand-carved mantel, with vintage Pewabic tiles, which are believed to date to 1926, when the school was built.
“We can’t continue to dismantle our history,” she said. “We can’t take this stuff down. They really chronicle the time in this country when that kind of work was being done, all across the country, to keep people working.”
Fordson High School, McDonald Elementary, Maples Elementary, and Bryant Middle School also have preserved Depression-era Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project murals.
In “The Murals of Dearborn,” a presentation created by Julie Moreno, former Padzieski Art Gallery coordinator for the Dearborn Community Arts Council, she said that when the Salina murals were created in 1934 by McCandlish, he was already known as the author and illustrator of children’s books, and his illustrations appeared in the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press and the Dearborn Independent.
Moreno’s presentation states the murals were painted with oil-based paint on Masonite panels, and the work highlights McCandlish’s technical skill, and his ability to portray a mood. She also said in the presentation that the artist’s representation of form and light demonstrate his virtuosity.
The Mother Goose mural is painted directly onto the plaster above the fireplace.
The 13 Mother Goose murals in the conference room feature Jack and Jill; Hey, Diddle Diddle; Rock-a-bye Baby; Humpty Dumpty; Little Boy Blue; Old Mother Goose; Baa, Baa, Black Sheep; Little Jack Horner; There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe; Simple Simon; Hickory Dickory Dock; Little Bo Peep; and Wee Willie Winkie.
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, based on a poem by Field, is the only non-Mother Goose mural, and is in the principal’s office.
The McCandlish mural of Old Mother Goose, painted on the plaster above the fireplace, mirrors the theme of the fireplace’s vintage Pewabic tiles, original to the school’s 1926 construction, that feature storybook animals.
Salina Intermediate teacher Paul Bruce said the detail in another mural, The Old Woman in the Shoe, makes it one of his personal favorites.
“There are 22 children in this picture,” Bruce said, “and each one is dressed uniquely, and there is extra clothing hanging on the line. The detail is amazing.”
The artist custom-built a small wooden house around the classroom clock in the Hickory Dickory Dock mural, and even created shingles for the roof.
Several of the murals incorporate the climate control vents, of which the originals were probably decorative wrought iron, Bruce said. The vent in the Little Jack Horner mural is part of the oven, and in the Wee Willie Winkie mural the vent appears to be part of the door.
Most of the murals still have small engraved brass plaques at the bottom, identifying them as a “Public Works of Art Project.”
The murals signed by McCandlish consistently highlight his initials, EGM, in red.
Bruce attributes the longevity of the murals to their being mounted above the reach of the children.
“Most of it is up at a level where a kindergartner couldn’t have touched it in the first place,” Bruce said. “The colors are still very vibrant.
“It doesn’t even look like they’ve faded over time. Maybe a little aging or yellowing, but still pretty pristine.”
The 80-year-old murals were part of a historic movement to put people back to work, Bruce said.
Bruce said he sent information about the murals to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Historical Society and The Henry Ford.
“We’re hoping that at least one of those groups will take a look and say this is now something that has to be preserved for posterity,” Bruce said.
Bruce hopes that increased awareness of the murals will encourage someone to archive and document the work.
Most current Salina students do not recognize the nursery rhymes depicted in the murals, Bruce said.
“The Mother Goose rhymes are not part of someone who was growing up in Yemen’s experience, and that’s what we have here,” Bruce said. “So we have to teach them what they are.”
He said they will occasionally bring students in to see the murals, and explain how kindergarten children in the past would learn to rhyme by reciting, while also building their knowledge base.
When teachers have meetings in the room, Bruce said it is hard not to get lost in the art.
“You just start realizing how much work went into each one of them,” Bruce said, “how beautiful the colors are, and how beautifully drawn everything is.”