The journey to identify, locate and restore Milford’s art commissioned under the Federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) has been a lengthy one, filled with intrigue.
It began under the auspices of Milford Arts Council’s first director William Meddick, an artist with a lifelong interest in WPA art. In 1986, when Milford’s Central Grammar School was being demolished, Bill Meddick and then Board of Education Arts Coordinator Frank Vespi rescued a large portion of a WPA mural, They Shall Pass This Way But Once, designed by Frank Rutkoski and painted by Louis Agostini.
The mural once greeted students at Grammar School on West River Street. It was designed to cover the wall at the entrance of the school, then the town’s largest educational institution with its 24 classrooms, a kindergarten and a large auditorium. Commissioned in 1937, the mural was installed on April 2, 1940 and remained until the school of demolished.
“We are so lucky that this fragment of the oil-on-canvas painting, They Shall Pass This Way But Once, has been saved”, notes Marion Morra, curator of Milford’s Permanent Art Collection, “Milford residents tell us they remember walking by the mural every day as they entered the school. Featuring female and male students at school, the mural’s background shows the Plymouth Church, which was demolished back in the 1950s and what appears to be the Sanford-Bristol House. The mural fragment has been stored in a Board of Education office since it was saved by Bill and Frank. ”
The Central Grammar School mural was painted on white canvas, which was glued to fiberboard. The rescued fragment showed some paint loss, breaks in the fiberboard as well as damage to the picture surface. The Milford Arts Council has recently had this mural restored and it now is on display at the Milford Public Library.
The WPA Program
The WPA (Works Projects Administration) was started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 and ran for some 10 years. It employed struggling out-of work artists during the Great Depression, Artists competed to create murals in public properties such as post offices, schools, museums, hospitals, housing projects and colleges. In Connecticut, some 160 artists created over 5000 pieces of art.
Under the WPA program, the projects were run in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided 10%-30% of the costs. For the art projects, the federal program usually paid the artists’salaries, while local entities allocated dollars for supplies and other miscellaneous expenses.
Restorations in Nearby Towns
Milford’s restoration will join many Connecticut towns that have already restored their WPA art, prizing their paintings, which are regarded as culturally significant works of art.
About the artists
Mural designer Frank Rutkoski, born in 1905, worked for both the Public Works of Art Project and the WPA Federal Arts Project. He completed eight murals and 13 easel works for the WPA. One mural is about the Amistad captives and can be seen at Troup Junior High School in New Haven. Other works are at Bethlehem School, Newington Jr. High School, Mansfield State Hospital, and New Britain High School. Later in life Rutkoski taught art classes. He died on November 24, 2000, in New Haven.
Little is known about artist Louis Agostini. He also worked for both the Public Works Arts Program and the WPA Federal Arts Project. He completed at least six paintings, most of them in 1936. His paintings were allocated to the Laurel Heights Sanatorium, the State Teacher’s College and the oil-on-canvas mural panel They Shall Pass this Way but Once.
Top Left: A portion of the fragment of the Rotkoski-Agostini Mural They Shall Pass This Way But Once.
Top Right: The mural depicts the old Plymouth Church which was demolished back in the 1950s.
Right: According to Historian Richard Platt, this appears to be the Sanford-Bristol House, which is some distance up North Street from the Plymouth Building. It has the same two chimneys, one on each end. However, the Sanford-Bristol House actually has 5 dormers, not four across the front, so some artistic license has been taken.