The name Ralph Frizzell, a colorful artist born in 1909 who passed away at 33, has surfaced in the news because he created the two murals at Nathan Clifford Elementary School that are being moved to the new Ocean Avenue Elementary School.
Herbert Adams’s story for us in our September 2000 issue, “Mystery Mural,” presents a contemporary appreciation for Frizzell’s work.
Painted in a Works Progress Administration (WPA) style Diego Rivera might have admired, Frizzell’s mural Fishing features “five sturdy Mainers hauling nets in a harbor below a guardian lighthouse,” Adams writes. The second mural is Farming, showing “five Aroostook potato farmers loading barrels full of bountiful harvest onto a horse-drawn wagon,” with idealistic mountains in the background. Workers of the world unite!
Frizzell was just 31 when he created them, two years before experiencing a deadly heart attack “while working as an assistant timekeeper at South Portland shipyards” during World War II.
It plays wonderfully today to see a new generation of children busy in their computer lab below the allegorical sweep of Fishing. But amid the buzz, a ghostly sense of the artist persists. His vanishing presence recalls Harry Lime in the film The Third Man. If he’s so much like a modern character, what was his life like back in the day?
“In person, Frizzell cut a dashing figure about town,” Adams writes, quoting the artist’s nephew, Charles Merrill. “He had a moustache, wavy dark hair, looked great in a good suit, and wore a real artist’s beret.”
His atelier was at 235 ½ Middle Street, which he kept with his painting partner, muralist Norman Thomas. Here, these nighthawks engaged in colloquy which “bloomed late into the night…Both partners flirted with socialism,” Adams writes.
Frizzell also created “a classic frieze of Grecian athletes for the indoor track of his alma mater, Deering High School, in 1938-1939”which has since vanished or been painted over. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can tell us exactly how and why this artwork disappeared from view.
There’s a rumored third mural Frizzell was developing–which would have made it the centerpiece of the Nathan Clifford triptych. Years ago, Adams asked Frizzell’s daughter, Jane Frizzell, a retired teacher, about it: “It was dark compared to my father’s other work, in very dark forest colors, in chalk… I remember many men working on lots of logs, one working a peavey.” Lost to time!
Like Frizzell, it’s the one that got away. What’s your unfinished business?