Maine’s South Solon Meeting House is a surprising visual treat, thanks to artists from the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture

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The South Solon Meeting House was saved from ruin in the mid 1930s. Hilary Nangle photo.Open the door to Maine’s South Solon Meeting House and Wow! Neither the classically influenced colonial, white-clapboard architecture nor the serene location on a rural crossroads in a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town hint about what’s inside. Built in 1842, and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the South Solon Meeting House retains its original podium, box pews, choir loft, windows, and steeple, but it’s been completely frescoed, floor to ceiling, with interdenominational religious scenes.

The ceiling, walls, choir loft, and entry of Maine's South Solon Meeting House are a riot of color and art. Hilary Nangle photo.The first time I visited I walked around gape-mouthed, trying to make sense of the jarring disconnect between prim exterior and racy interior, primitive design and contemporary decor, while taking in the equally disconnected scenes screaming for my attention.

Juried artists frescoed the scenes on the South Solon Meeting House walls and celing in the mid 1950s. Tom Nangle photoWhere to look first: The Last Supper, a parade of angelic musicians, shepherds, fishermen, church-going families. Walls, ceiling, choir loft, entry, every available space preached.

But why?

Let’s start at the beginning. The open-minded founders of the South Solon Meeting House stipulated that “the house [be] opened freely on weekdays, when requested, for conference meetings and for lectures and addresses on all religious benevolent, moral and scientific subjects.” So the building never was purely a house of God.

Primitive pews are juxtaposed against contemporary frescoes inside the South Solon Meeting House. Hilary Nangle photoAs with many such buildings, it deteriorated over the years. In the 1930s, Helen and Williard Cummings of Skowhegan lead a community effort to save it. In 1946, Willard, a portrait artist, together with Henry Varnum Poor and Sidney Simon, founded the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a summer artist residency program that specialized in frescoes (and still does).

Artists were encouraged to take inspiration from the Old and New Testament, but there were no rules on what was to be depicted in the scenes frescoed on the walls of Maine's South Solon Meeting House. Tom Nangle photo/In the 1950s, student Margaret Day Blake took a shine to the meeting house. With the school’s support, she offered 13 fellowships to young, professional artists, selected from three national juried competitions, to paint the interior. The winners—Sigmund Abeles, Alfred Blaustein, Edwin Brooks, Ashley Bryan, Williard Cummings, Sidney Hurwitz, William King, Tom Mikkelson, Anne Poor, Henry Varnum Poor, Judith Shuman, Sidney Simon and John Wallace—were told:

Be sure to take in the view from the choir loft, when visiting the South Solon Meeting House. Hilary Nangle photoThere shall be no limitation of subject matter; however, bearing in mind the religious character of the building, which has been non-sectarian from its inception, it’s suggested that the New and Old Testaments offer rich and suitable subject matter. This material should be interpreted in imaginative terms which allow complete freedom to develop symbols, associations, or legends.

Be sure to visit the choir loft of the South Solon Meeting House to see the frescoes painted on those walls and for a closer view of the ceiling. Hilary Nangle photo. The riot of color followed.

Now some people might think the result isn’t proper for a meeting house, but I believe the founders of the South Solon Meeting House would have approved of this odd juxtaposition of color and image on their colonial building. It’s certainly thought provoking, and it invites lingering a little longer, if not in contemplative prayer than simply in wide-eyed wonder.

Step inside Maine's South Solon Meeting House and prepare to be wowed. Tom Nangle photoSince 1956, The South Solon Historical Society has cared for the meeting house, located on the corner of the South Solon and Meetinghouse Roads, north of Route 43 and east of Route 201. Preservation and maintenance is an ongoing struggle. While the Board seeks to further promote use of the building for cultural events and community life, the most pressing concern at this time is the need to repair the damage and deterioration wrought by the passage of time and weather, and create an endowment for future maintenance.

And a few more images…

Walk all around the meeting house to view all the frescoes from different angles. Hilary Nangle photo

 

4 COMMENTS

  1. This is the most incredible series of murals we have ever seen. Definitely, worth the trip from Portland, and fairly easy to find if you take the “fork” by Gifford’s Ice Cream.

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