From the outside, the South Solon Meeting House in the Somerset County town of Solon looks like many other historic buildings in Maine. Built in 1842, it’s a classic example of colonial church architecture, with Gothic Revival details in its steeple and windows, and white clapboard siding. For decades, it served as both a nondenominational house of worship and as a community center. And although church services aren’t presently held there, its doors are always unlocked, in keeping with its ecumenical history.
Inside the building, however, is a hidden treasure: a work of art unknown to many, but sublime in its scope and subject matter alike.
Nearly every square inch of wall and ceiling inside is covered in frescoes, painted over the course of five years in the 1950s by 13 young artists, including Ashley Bryan, the acclaimed artist and author who still makes his home on Little Cranberry Island. The frescoes were commissioned by the town, paid for by philanthropist Margaret Day Blake, and were organized by the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, an internationally renowned summer artist’s retreat, which put together several juries that selected the participating artists.
The frescoes depict scenes from the Old and New Testament, from nature and from agriculture, and from the daily lives and history of rural Mainers. They are painted in many different styles; realist paintings exist near images with more abstract approaches, just as scenes of angels and heavenly light co-exist with a large portrait of the town of Solon’s founders.
The overall effect is one of kaleidoscopic, dizzying beauty; riotously colorful, formally diverse paintings that command a sense of spiritual awe.
And yet, it’s likely that most Mainers don’t know the building or frescoes even exist.
“Everybody here in Solon and the surrounding area knows about it, yes, but I think the general public in Maine and New England just do not know this is here,” said Martha Young, a board member of the South Solon Historical Society, the nonprofit organization that maintains the building. “We’re just a bit off the beaten path. Which, I think, makes it that much more special.”
The building stood for more than 100 years before the fresco project began, when Blake, a wealthy philanthropist and art collector who spent a summer studying at the Skowhegan School, came across the building. Inspired by the fresco-making Blake encountered at the school, she offered to endow fellowships for artists to create and install frescoes at the Meeting House, to further the medium and to contribute to the preservation of the building and the cultural life of the region.
The artists were chosen by juries, which included the then-directors of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City and acclaimed artists and architects such as Nathaniel Saltonstall, Ely Jacques Kahn and Jack Levine.
The 13 artists chosen included Sigmund Abeles, Alfred Blaustein, Edwin Brooks, Ashley Bryan, Sidney Hurwitz, William King, Tom Mikkelson, Judith Shuman and John Wallace, as well as Skowhegan School co-founders Willard Cummings, Sidney Simon and Henry Varnum Poor and his daughter, Anne Poor.
Though in the 1950s and 60s the school was more directly involved in the maintenance of the building, the connection between the school and the Meeting House is a bit more tenuous these days. Aside from a yearly visit by each summer’s Skowhegan students, there’s little other direct involvement.
Board member Andrew Davis, a Solon resident who was instrumental in founding the board in the 1990s, can frequently be seen out front during the summer months, mowing the lawn.
“We try to do a few events here. We’ve had concerts here. We charge a modest fee to rent it for weddings,” said Davis. “We did a big renovation here about five years ago … we’re always trying to fundraise. There’s lots of little projects to complete.”
Fresco is a medium not often seen in the U.S. It’s most associated with the Italian Renaissance, with the most famous example being the Sistine Chapel. The technique — painting on wet plaster, which when it dries becomes part of the wall — is still taught to this day at the Skowhegan School, which last year celebrated its 70th anniversary.
Fresco is the preferred medium of board member and Solon resident Barbara Sullivan, a visual artist who teaches at the University of Maine at Farmington. Her highly individualistic, 3D style of fresco — quite different from what is in the South Solon Meeting House — is represented by the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, and has been displayed at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the University of Maine Museum of Art.
Sullivan got her start painting frescoes while working at the Skowhegan School, though not as a teacher; in the late 1970s, she was a cook in the school’s kitchen, a job she had after attending art school in Maine and Vermont. After work, she began learning the technique in the fresco studio after hours, which eventually turned into a career. The frescoes at the Meeting House gained more resonance for her as she learned the technique.
“I feel so lucky to be living so close to this place, in terms of the fresco component,” said Sullivan. “Our sense of public art is very different in the U.S. In Mexico, there are frescoes everywhere. Here, not so much … I think that’s why this place is so unusual. Here was this building, and they thought, ‘We’ve got these big, blank walls, and what a great opportunity for artists to fill them.’ And now we have this incredible example of public art, here in this little town.”
Visitors and locals alike remain highly respectful of the building, and little damage has been done to it, aside from weather and time-related things like rotting window sills and a sagging foundation, which has been jacked up several times over the past 175 years.
Young and the other board members try to spread the word as best they can, though it can be an uphill battle, with limited funding or time for a concerted marketing effort. Skowhegan is nearby to the south, but with just over 1,000 people in the town and few other landmarks, most people have to purposely come to Solon.
“School groups should be coming here. It should be part of a tour of Maine art,” said Young. “One thing at a time, though. We’re working on a proper guidebook for the art… we want to install new lighting.”
Regardless of whether you approach the building as an art lover, a history buff, an architecture enthusiast or as simply a curious passerby, there’s something truly special about the most New England of old buildings housing such a spectacular example of mid-20th century American art.
“I grew up here, and the idea that this interior is so different from the exterior is just really exciting. You have this classic New England building, and then inside, it’s something truly remarkable,” said Sullivan. “They used these modernist techniques with this age-old medium. It’s fantastic, to me.”
The South Solon Meeting House is located at the intersection of Rices Corner Road (a.k.a South Solon Road) and Parkman Hill Road (a.k.a Meeting House Road). 734 South Solon Road in your GPS should get you there. For information, visit www.southsolonmeetinghouse.org.