The South Solon Meeting House is a handsome Gothic Revival Structure, straight-lined, spacious and simple. It was built as a non-sectarian place of worship in 1842. After a few decades of being shuttered, it was restored in 1939. In 1980, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

It is also, without a doubt, one of the most interesting art spots in America.

While it still features its original box pews, pulpit and choir gallery, the Meeting House is now best known for its unique frescoed interior, painted in the 1950s by artists associated with and overseen by the nation’s leading artist residency: The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Tiffany Blake, while a student at the nearby Skowhegan School, which was founded in 1946, took an interest in the building and decided that it offered an opportunity for the students, who, in turn, could enrich the space. Blake was no typical student. She was also a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the top art museums in the world.

Built in 1842, the South Solon Meeting House was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

By 1951, there was the first of three national calls for a juried competition for Margaret Day Blake Fellowships that would allow young American artists to paint frescos in the Meeting House. The call intended to be open-minded and supportive of the imaginations of the selected artists, but it also pushed the submitters in the direction of Biblical subjects. According to Mildred Cummings’ 1959 book about the Meeting House, the call read, in part, as follows:

“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.”

Between 1952 and 1956, 13 artists covered virtually the entire interior of the Meeting House with frescos. For the first year of the project, William King designed the pulpit wall with scenes from the life of Moses. In the following year, Alfred Blaustein covered the north wall with scenes of Job, the Burning Bush and the Sacrifice of Isaac, and Tom Mikkelson covered the south wall with New Testament scenes such as the Eucharist (the last supper). Edwin Brooks, the only painter with no connection to the Skowhegan School, completed the ceiling with its giant and almost bizarre “God-head” in 1955. Two students were invited to paint panels in the choir, and the entry was painted by the four “permanent faculty” at Skowhegan: Willard Cummings, Anne Poor, Henry Varnum Poor, and Sydney Simon.

Edwin Brooks completed the ceiling and William King the pulpit wall. Photo by Daniel Kany

The interior of the Meeting House is not like any other space in America. It blends New England’s sober yet spiritual architectural simplicity with a blend of emotive period art, religious imagery and the uncommon medium of fresco within an interior that achieves an overarching sense of unity and wholeness.

Ashley Bryan, Parable of the Sower, detail.

Fresco is an ancient painting technique in which color is applied to wet lime plaster. Probably the best known example is Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it was the European norm for adorning churches and chapels for centuries. Henry Varnum Poor taught fresco at Skowhegan from its inception, and it is the only medium, apparently, that has always been taught there. Varnum Poor was well-known as an artist at the time, and his leading accomplishments included frescos in the Justice and Interior departments in Washington D.C..

The blend of imagery in the Meeting House is not like anything I have ever seen anywhere in the world (and yeah, as an art historian, I am drawn to churches and fresco cycles like a kid to candy). Although it includes some New Testament scenes, a large proportion of the artists was Jewish, and much of the imagery represents a flip from what we’re used to – contemporary artists referencing ecclesiastical images in their secular paintings. Here, we see, for example, wispy references to Icarus and Daedalus pretending to be angels, or Millet’s “The Sower” spreading seeds while Jesus preaches. And for his own entryway token, Varnum Poor painted a pure landscape – his own nearby farm with its previous occupant, a farmer named Kinkaid. When asked about the landscape while so much of the other content was religious, Varnum Poor pointed to the name of the work: “The Lord Reveals Himself to Old Kincaid.”

While I find the entire interior deeply moving and artistically compelling (particularly the work of Blaustein and Mikkelson), I have to single out the east wall center panel by Little Cranberry Island artist Ashley Bryan.

In 1956, Bryan and Sidney Hurwitz were selected by a jury comprising John Bauer, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art; architectural great Ely Jaques Kahn; Nathaniel Saltonstall; and artists Isabel Bishop and Ben Shahn. Bryan’s curved panel depicts the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-3), a moment when Jesus is teaching and so many people come to hear him that he needs to get onto a boat to better address the crowd. Hurwitz’s panels echo the landscape structure of Bryan’s work: To the left, Hurwitz depicts a land scene in appreciation of the symbiotic relationship of land creatures with humanity, while on the right is his scene of water creatures.

Bryan’s work is both a successfully complex composition and, technically, an extraordinary example of fresco. With Shahn checking in on him every day for painterly and content-oriented guidance and Varnum Poor checking in as his technical maestro, the young Bryan managed to accomplish a work of both great content-oriented and technical ambition. Structurally, we see the listening crowd to the left with Jesus on the boat marked by a strong vertical line, a mast about three-quarters of the way across the scene. To the right of the boat is a water scene Bryan created from sketches of fishermen he made at his parents’ home in Antigua. The center of the scene is marked by a darker pyramid form (think da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”), at the top of which is a regal character. Beyond this character (who may be Christ earlier in the story before he moved onto the boat) is the Sower. And, yes, the figure is straight from Jean-François Millet’s iconic 1850 “The Sower” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Tom Mikkelson covered the south wall with New Testament scenes such as the Last Supper. Photo by Daniel Kany

Bryan’s two figures on the boat, however, are not obvious. Bryan, with whom I spoke by phone this week about the work, maintains that Christ is the figure to the right of the mast and that the figure gesturing to the crowd is a disciple, “either Peter or Paul.” But the image seems to imply that the figure to the left of the mast is talking to the crowd. If this is indeed a literal depiction of Mark 4:1-3, then we must see this figure as Christ, teaching the crowd, and the darker muscular figure, wearing not a full robe but only the lower half, to the right is the fisherman whose boat has been turned into a podium. Otherwise, it is Christ who turns to the viewer, directly, while the Gospel is disseminated by one of his lead disciples.

From the perspective of Biblical narrative, this set of multiple possibilities (or multiple perspectives) is extraordinarily rich and nuanced. It is, in other words, Baroque, that style of intentional complexity set to play on emotions and the dynamics of possibility, that spiritually swirling world outside of the linear clarity ostensibly espoused by the High Renaissance or, for that matter, the intellectual clarity of the Enlightenment.

What ultimately seals the deal on Bryan’s Parable of the Sower, however, is his modernist knitting of content and technique. Eschewing the notion of legible “giornata” (literally, “a day” – with fresco, an artist would lay down a single day’s worth of wet lime plaster, and these sections are generally quite apparent with a bit of practiced looking), Bryan hung damp cloths over his work so he could continue seamlessly from day to day. Whether this is a cause or result of his stroke-oriented style could be questioned, but this clearly allowed him to use a much more gestural, dynamic and energized style than I have ever seen anywhere in fresco, as well as an approach that exploded the stylistic norms of fresco, a particularly well-settled and ancient mode of painting.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours in chapels painted by Giotto, Michelangelo, Cimabue and others. And while Bryan probably doesn’t quite qualify for that list, he certainly made his case for himself as a very young man. And not only was he young, but Bryan was a veteran and an African-American “war artist.” Sure, he had degrees from Columbia University and Cooper Union and was returning to Europe to study on Fulbright Fellowships. But wouldn’t it be a stretch to say such a person painted one of the most powerful frescos in American history?

No, it wouldn’t. It’s one of the best-painted frescos I have ever seen. Anywhere. Ever.

My favorite painting in the world is Pontormo’s 1528 “Descent from the Cross” in Santa Felicita in Florence. I’ve been to see it several times and I have never spent more than a fraction of my time there looking at the other work (it’s both that good and that important to me). It’s a work of spiritual and emotional confusion. It’s pitying. Sad. Upsetting. Moving. And eminently beautiful. It represents a moment of fundamental transition. And so does Bryan’s “Parable of the Sower.”

Bryan came to Maine in 1946 as a member of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture’s first class. The Meeting House might be on the National Register of Historic Places, but Bryan is a national treasure, as well as the author of one of America’s greatest fresco murals.

Maine has more than a few overlooked art treasures, but the South Solon Meeting House might be the greatest of them all.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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