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Reflections on a Painted Wall

Market Square Mural by Ralph Morang

In 1982, although few people noticed, a tiny rift appeared in the time-space continuum. It happened in Market Square in Portsmouth, NH. The author was there and so was photographer Ralph Morang who captured the quickly fading phenomenon. If you were not there, here is how the anomaly went down. The past, you see, is studying us, not the other way around.




READ about a Dover mural

There really are wormholes in time. I saw one more than 20 years ago In Portsmouth. Ask people who were downtown during the last few pendulum swings of 1983. They'll back me up.

Plywood Portsmouth Mural 1982-83 (c) Ralph Morang/SeacoastNH.comPortsmouth is often chronologically disorienting. You pick up the classic clopping of hooves on cobblestone. You see a man in a top hat duck down a Victorian alley, or you spin to glimpse a cloud that you'd swear, moments before, was the unfurled curl of a tall ship up river. Residents just nod. When you live in a historic town, hallucination comes with the territory.

Spending too much time, as I do, paging through brittle books and archived photos puts me squarely in the high risk category for Twilight Zone-like encounters with the past. But I've had disappointingly few, being endowed with more curiosity than imagination and more energy than memory. My brain is just too darn rational; it demands so many triangulation points, takes so few risks, asks endless trivial questions that it can't get off the launch pad to pierce the temporal curtain for more than a few seconds at a time. Maybe it's just afraid. My mother used to warn her little boys not to cross their eyes too many times or they would get stuck that way. Maybe if you think too hard about history, you wind up back there, trapped forever without toothpaste, hot showers or toilet paper. It's a scary thought. My brain may just be protecting me.

So I was particularly surprised to see that wormhole open of its own accord one day in the middle of Market Square back in the fall of 1982. This was no transient phenomenon. There was no need for parapsychologists wearing headphones sweeping the air with ghostbuster equipment. This was a full blown in-your-face breach in the space-time continuum. Everybody saw it.

It all started when the Foye Building fell down on December 23, 1981. Actually it just moaned and shivered and crunched a bit as a brick wall gave way. The details are distracting, but there were lawsuits and recriminations. No one was hurt and the decision to rebuild eventually came around.

To mask the reconstruction site and protect passersby, the builders put up a giant wall made from 50 sheets of four-by-eight foot plywood. It was ugly. Every journalist in town, myself included, described it as a monstrous missing tooth, an unsightly gap in our beloved gentrified downtown. It hunkered there obscenely between the Portsmouth Athenaeum and what is now Starbucks, leering across the street at the Old North Church. We hated it.

Enter the Fantastic Five. We tend to put the wrong names of people on plaques -- wealthy founders, accidental heroes, politicians. But the men and women who speak to our souls get diddly. Five local artists decided to paint the plywood wall. They were nuts, of course. The planned two week project took 12 weeks and the all-volunteer team sacrificed income, sanity and relationships to fill in the gap. The plaque that isn't there should read -- Cary Wendell, Steven Lee, Pat Splaine, Thom Cowgill, Valerie Cooper. Others helped and will go equally unrewarded.

Market Street Mural by Ralph Morang


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