Hanging in the Rotary Room and nearby hallway of the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center are four murals painted by Ralph Nelson. Ralph Lewis Nelson (1885 -1967) painted these four murals of the founding of Wethersfield for the public schools in town as a commission by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.
Ralph Nelson, the Artist
Nelson discovered his artistic skills while attending Baptist College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Nelson worked in commercial art, newspaper cartooning and free-lance work after graduation. He is most famous for his collaborative design with James Montgomery Flagg on the Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster he conceived while a sergeant in the U.S. Marines during World War I. The Uncle Sam recruiting poster is an adaptation of the British poster created in 1914 featuring Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War. Nelson is credited with the design of the sketch and concept, while Flagg colored and finished the poster. Nelson was always dismayed that he never received credit for his adaptive design.
Following the war, Nelson lived and worked out of a studio in New York City until 1932, when he and his wife moved to Wilton, Connecticut. He began working for the Public Works of Art Project and then the Federal Arts Project in 1935. Nelson is credited with 188 easel works and numerous murals to be displayed around the state. For a list of his work inventoried by the Connecticut State Library please visit: http://wpa.cslib.org/index.php/532/nelson-ralph/
During World War II, Nelson worked at the American Brass company and his wife at the Timex Watch Company, both in Waterbury, CT, while he volunteered his artistic talents with the Army Corps of Engineers designing portable altars for Sunday services at the front lines. Following the war, he worked designing greeting cards for Bethlehem Greeting Card Company and Hallmark Greeting Card Company, as well as selling his paintings privately. Nelson continued to paint despite failing eyesight until his death on May 7, 1967 in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
Early Wethersfield in Murals
Recently, staff at Bethlehem Public Library in Bethlehem, Connecticut contacted Wethersfield Historical Society regarding a watercolor painting that had hung on the wall of their adult fiction department for at least twenty-five years. Last month, the painting the staff simply referred to as “Pilgrims” was reframed and they found a note written by the artist. The note explained it was a sketch for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that was to hang in the Frances-Silliman School. The search was on for the Bethlehem Public Library to find out more about the artist and where it was to be displayed. After much hunting Ms. Carlson contacted Wethersfield Historical Society wondering if “Frances Silliman School” could be the Francis-Stillman School on Hartford Avenue.
After initial examination of the watercolor, we found it is similar to the Ralph Nelson mural we have currently hanging in the Rotary Room of the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center. The mural depicts the early settlers of Wethersfield walking to Connecticut from Watertown, Massachusetts. The mural used to hang in the Francis-Stillman School, which now serves as the Wethersfield Board of Education, until it was restored in 1996. The painting was then loaned by the Town of Wethersfield to Wethersfield Historical Society for permanent display in the Keeney Center.
According to the 1936 Hartford Courant article “Wilton Artist Designs Murals for Schools in Wethersfield,” Nelson created five murals for Wethersfield Schools. One, of a man in a pillory, which originally hung in the Ridge Road School (now torn down), is unaccounted for. Below is an inventory of the four on display in the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center for public view.
“The Public Mart”
Mural was originally hung in Governor Thomas Welles School (now Keeney Memorial Cultural Center) at 200 Main Street.
“Connecticut Indians Appealing to Governor Winthrop to Come to Connecticut”
Originally hung in the assembly room of Charles Wright School on Nott St. It depicts a stereotypical Native-American of the Wongunk tribe inviting John Winthrop of Massachusetts Colony to send colonists to settle the Connecticut River Valley.
“The Arrival of the First Settlers”
Mural originally hung in Stillman School (Francis-Stillman School) Building at 129 Hartford Avenue in the hallway.