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Jefferson High’s Hidden Arts Treasures

October 1, 2008

From the Portland Mercury, September 30 2008

This is Jefferson High School principal Dr. Cynthia Harris with one of the 115 pieces of art that have been hiding in the school’s basement since the 1940s. The school is celebrating its centennial next May, and Portland Public Schools is now trying to raise $27,000 to restore all the work for the occasion.

Cynthia Harris, principal of Jefferson High School

Cynthia Harris, principal of Jefferson High School

Most of the work was produced during the Great Depression as part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project, the goal of which was to employ out of work artists, including Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. You know: Lowbrow types.

“It’s a find,” says Harris. “It brings out the richness of the school, and the historical greatness that exists at Jefferson. My role as principal over the last two years has been to renew and to restore the greatness at Jefferson. So I’m excited about it.”

Sadly now, much of Jefferson’s hidden art is mouldering in the basement, behind an unassuming door, which I was lucky enough to step through this afternoon:

Some of the work is not only historically very important, but I would venture to suggest, highly collectible. For example, this original 1939 editorial cartoon by Lute Pease, a Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist, depicts Adolf Hitler scheming to get hold of nothing other than Iraq’s oil. History’s a funny thing, eh?

Editoral cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winner Lute Pease

Editoral cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winner Lute Pease

And it’s all in the basement. At Jefferson High School. It’s fascinating…I’ve photographed much, much more after the jump.

First things first. It really is a basement closet. I don’t think half the audiovisual equipment in there can have been used since I was in high school myself…

A lot of the work is lithography celebrating American industry. This is by a guy named Otis Glofield.

And this one is by Viktor Von Prebosic:

There are also a few later works, like this print by Portlander Jack McLarty, called Evening Dream.

Jack MacLarty

Jack MacLarty

Not to mention a series of botanical drawings:

Incongruously, there’s also this oil painting of Gregory Hines:

Gregory Hines, artist unknown

Gregory Hines, artist unknown

That’s the same Gregory Hines tap dancing here with Steve Martin in 1981:

I know. It’s an odd find, and not part of the collection. But still, it fits in, somehow, with the incongruity of the collection itself in its current setting. There are also four other works of interesting art around the building, which are included in the restoration effort. This wood marketry of the constitution by Amy Gorman from the 1940s is just hanging on the wall:

Patriotic wood marquerty by Aimee Gorman

Patriotic wood marquerty by Aimee Gorman

Just hanging there…

Not to mention this bronze bas relief World War I memorial by Avard Fairbanks, from 1925:

Fairbanks was a hugely successful sculptor and commercial artist who went on to design the Ram on the front of Ram trucks. Talk about glory…This piece shows the angel of death plucking, perhaps even seducing a helpless soldier, former Jefferson student, presumably, from out of the trenches. It’s probably the strangest work. I was struck hard by these images of the soldiers in gas masks. Very haunting imagery for the wall of a high school. Especially when you bear in mind that many of Jefferson’s kids will be targeted for recruitment by the armed forces to serve in current conflicts elsewhere.

There’s also this bronze commemorating the Lewis and Clark exhibition, by the unfortunately moustached Parisian sculptor Adrian Voisin, from 1934:

Not to mention this sculpture of Jefferson by Venetian sculptor Karl Bitter, from 1915:

Thomas Jefferson by Karl Bitter

Thomas Jefferson by Karl Bitter

It’s a fascinating collection, much of it equal in depression-era interest to the Timberline Lodge, as far as capturing my imagination goes. And I’m excited to see all the work restored. You can find out more about the efforts to do that here.

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