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The Lost WPA Murals of Gladys Brannigan



Making public art   

“What rules?” says Gordon Carlisle, a muralist and fine artist working from his Portsmouth.  “Today, anything goes.”  

Carlisle was among the group of artists who created a four-story mural on plywood in downtown Portsmouth in the 1980s. The gigantic painting covered up the renovation of a building in Market Square. The mural artists created a “time warp” depicting the building as it might have looked 100 years earlier. 

Although he never saw Brannigan’s work, Carlisle says he feels an immediate kinship to her. He is fascinated with the idea of using history as a mirror to modern times. While Brannigan’s figures were lifeless and two-dimensional, Carlisle’s life-sized characters often appear to leap off the wall. He describes himself as a “painterly realist” and, like Brannigan, his work often references historical events, real or allegorical figures, and famous works of art.  

Carlisle’s murals can be seen in diverse sites from St. Peter’s Church in Portland, Maine to Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery. His jobs often come from “Percent for Art” programs. This legislation – it varies from state to state -- requires the owners of new public buildings to set aside a small portion of the funds for art. The successful muralist, Carlisle says, is constantly filling out application forms, writing proposals, and competing for commissions.   

“She [Brannigan] was a working artist trying to make a living – and she got jobs,” Carlisle says. “It’s hard to get paid. It’s often a battle. A muralist is working for a client. It’s public art. It’s a bargain you reach with the hiring organization. You’re not doing it for yourself. It’s about the client.”

Art with a purpose  

In the 1930s federally-funded art had political, as well as fiscal, educational, and cultural goals. Portsmouth superintendent of schools, H.L. Moore, told those who attended the 1936 dedication that the new murals should give students a “keener appreciation of their heritage.” Many of the children at the Middle School then were descendants of old Portsmouth families. 

Students, Moore said, needed to keep Portsmouth “strong and enduring.” This was especially important in the desperate times of the Great Depression. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the city’s primary employer, was practically at a standstill. Middle-schoolers, Moore said, should discover “a sense of their obligation to sustain the ideals and honor the sacrifices that made this city and this nation possible.” And they did just that. These kids went on to become the Greatest Generation, graduating from high school directly into World War II. 

Superintendent Moore also understood the power of art for its own sake. He concluded the unveiling ceremony for Gladys Branigan’s lost murals with a statement that still rings true. He said, “Let these murals be dedicated to the spirit of art in our city as an outstanding evidence that beauty of form and color is still recognized and finds a rightful place in our modern living.” 

 By J. Dennis Robinson

SOURCES: The author wants to thank the following for research assistance on this article: Nicole Cloutier, Ellen Fineberg, Mary Ann List, Jane James, Dale Velena, Robin Silva, Tom Hardiman, Richard Candee, and Maryellen Burke.   

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the Web site His history column appears here every other Monday and online at his site.

Artist Gladys_Brannigan (1882-1944)


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