The South Solon Meeting House (SSMH) is a handsome, but typical, New England meeting house—from outside. Inside, it deserves to be called “the Sistine Chapel of Maine” (O’Neil): between 1952 and 1956, its interior was completely covered in frescoes depicting Biblical subjects, along with a few secular depictions in the lobby. This extraordinary project was the brainchild of Margaret Day Blake (1876–1971), widow of Tiffany Blake, chief editorial writer to the Chicago Tribune, “art patron, collector, and a benefactor of the Art Institute of Chicago, of which she was the first woman trustee”(Archives of American Art). Margaret Blake had attended the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, one of the rare places on earth where fresco painting has been part of its curriculum since its foundation in 1946 by Willard W. Cummings, Sidney Simon, Henry Varnum Poor, and Charles Cuttler (Cummings, Simon, and Poor contributed frescoes at the SSMH).
After visiting the Meeting House, then in a state of disrepair, Margaret Blake decided to establish scholarships and provide additional funds for materials. A first call for artists to paint frescoes at the SSMH “under the supervision of the school” was issued in 1951 (Cummings 39). Among the jurors who selected the first recipients of the Margaret Blake Fellowship were important figures such as René d’Harnoncourt and John I.H. Baur, respectively directors of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, along with prominent artists and faculty members of the Skowhegan School. In the last two years, additional artists were “invited on basis of outstanding work at the Skowhegan School” (Cummings 39). Between 1952 and 1956, the Meeting House’s interior was completely covered in frescoes. The submission guidelines granted the artists remarkable freedom:
There shall be no limitation of subject-matter; however, bearing in mind the religious character of the building, which is non-sectarian from its inception, it is suggested that the New and Old Testaments offer rich and suitable subject matter.
This material should not limit the approach, but should be interpreted in imaginative terms which allow complete freedom to develop symbols, associations, or legends.
This remarkable ensemble, like none other in the world, is the result of the convergence of two important revivals that took place in the 20th century: of fresco as an artistic medium and of religious art. The first begun in the early 1920s in Mexico, with artists such as José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), Diego Rivera (1886–1957), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974). “Los tres grandes” (the three great ones), worked in the inter-war period in the United States and Henry Varnum Poor, one of the founders of the Skowhegan School and among the artists who contributed frescoes at the SSMH, had worked with Rivera. As a WPA artist, Poor created frescoes in several US buildings starting in the early 1930s. Ben Shahn, who was part of the Skowhegan faculty and of the jury that selected some of the SSMH artists was, along with Henry Varnum Poor, instrumental in establishing the fresco program at the Skowhegan School. Shahn had learned the medium working as Diego Rivera’s assistant at the controversial (and now destroyed) Man at the Crossroads mural at Rockefeller Center (1933). Speaking at an event at the SSMH on 21 July 2007, Sigmund Abeles, one of the Meeting House artists, recounted that he had dreamed of becoming “a kind of a Mexican muralist in the Civil Rights Movement.”
The second revival also started abroad, in post-WWI France, spearheaded by Marie-Alain Couturier (1897–1954), a Dominican whose impact was enormous and reached beyond France, for instance through his connection to Dominique and John de Menil, who, under his guidance, started assembling their famous collection. Dominique had first met Couturier in Paris in 1936 and they reconnected in the United States during World War II. Dominique subsequently authored several articles for L’Art sacré, the journal directed by Couturier. Mildred Cummings, author of the only book on the Meeting House and its frescoes, recounts how, as Margaret Blake developed the idea for the decoration of the SSMH, “it was hoped that a project for a contemporary church decoration similar to those of France could point a direction for others in America” (Cummings 39).
It is of all places in the middle of rural Maine that such important threads met and that the South Solon Meeting House and its mid-century fresco decoration came to be.
- Archives of American Art, “Margaret Day Blake Scrapbook.”
- Blake, Margaret. “How the South Solon Meeting House Project Began.” Typescript, August 1952. South Solon Historical Society Collection, Special Collections & Archives, Colby College Libraries.
- Cummings, Mildred H. South Solon: The Story of a Meeting House. South Solon, Maine: South Solon Historical Society, 1959.
- O’Neil, Walter. “Fresco At Skowhegan, 1990.” In “An Oral History of Fresco,” Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.