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National Art Treasures in Cleveland Heights
 

By Mazie Adams

Did you know that Oxford Elementary school is home to one of the Cleveland area’s finest collection of Federal Art? Thousands of students and hundreds of teachers who walked through the halls and library of Oxford, located at 939 Quilliams Road, have passed by these beautiful pieces of art every day.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt developed a variety of programs to provide work relief for millions of needy Americans. The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (FAP) put local artists to work creating murals, sculpture and ceramics using the “American Scene” for inspiration.

Under the direction of leaders from the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Public Library, the Cleveland branch of the FAP sought more grants than many larger cities. As a result, the Cleveland program not only employed needy artists to adorn numerous schools and public buildings, it also created a deep appreciation among the general public for Cleveland’s growing community of artists.

 

 

The Cleveland FAP extended its reach to outlying suburbs. The Cleveland Heights school district requested works pertaining to children’s themes and the American Scene during the late 1930s and 1940s. Oxford Elementary was allocated funding for two murals, two hydrocals (a type of extra-hard plaster) and thirty-five ceramics (although not all the ceramics were completed).

Early in 1937, two murals applied directly to the walls of the first floor corridor were executed at Oxford School by Gladys Carambella. These showed the stories of the Pied Piper of Hamlin and Cinderella in colorful detail.

In 1941, artists LeRoy Flint and Henry Olmer, inspired by the history of Cleveland, created a pair of relief panels for Oxford, depicting “Agriculture” and “Industry.” They were sculpted in clay, but cast in hydrocal.

Cleveland Heights artist Edris Eckhardt guided the work of the Sculpture and Ceramics Division of Cleveland FAP. She developed a new process, which was used for most of the 20 Oxford ceramics. Artists Eckhardt, Emilie Scrivens, Frank Gentot and Theresa DeVries created ceramics based on children’s stories, taking inspiration from Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Winnie the Pooh” and others. Elizabeth Seaver, Grace Luse, John Tenkacs and Nils Hanson—inspired by the people, families and cultures found in America—creating works such as “Eskimo Family,” “Hiawatha” and “Johnny Appleseed.”

 
 

Fast Forward

Some 40 years later, in 1972, the CH-UH School Board approved a 19.5 million dollar bond issue, which called for the “demolition of Roosevelt Junior High School, the demolition and new construction of Boulevard, Coventry, Fairfax, and Taylor Elementary Schools, and the complete renovation of all other schools to provide a modern atmosphere for learning in each.”
The remodeling of Oxford Elementary included the addition of a storage space and an instruction room off the ground floor corridor. Construction of these spaces involved opening a doorway in the middle of the Cinderella mural. In the 1970s, the beauty and artistic value of Federal Art was just being recognized and scholars were searching for surviving pieces. The general public often had little or no knowledge of these works. Luckily, Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska, with the support of principal James Evans, worked tirelessly to save the Cinderella mural.

 
 

Poduska contacted then CWRU Assistant Professor of Art Dr. Karal Ann Marling, a noted Federal Art expert. Dr. Marling documented the FAP art at Oxford. Oxford staff were surprised to discover that one sculpture, positioned close to the edge of the office counter, was also FAP art. It was quickly moved to a safer space.

Dr. Marling also provided much needed guidance on saving the Cinderella mural. One important fact pointed out by Marling was that all works of art produced under the auspices of the FAP are federal property transferred to the custody of semi-public, non-federal institutions as either permanent or 99 year loans, subject to the good conduct of the receiving agency. Destruction of these works of art could lead to serious and extended legal complications.

Mrs. Poduska brought Cinderella’s plight to public attention with an impassioned plea at a school board meeting. She reminded the School Board that they had designated 1974 as the “Year of Fine Arts.” The destruction of irreplaceable works of art would be “inconsistent” at best. “Too often, in remodeling and new construction, Americans have destroyed many irreplaceable historic landmarks and works of art.” Her words led to an article in the Feb. 28, 1974 edition of The Sun Press entitled “37 year-old Cinderella Awaits Prince as Midnight Approaches.” Public pressure led to a reconsideration by the coordinating architects for the remodeling program, saving Cinderella from destruction.

 
 

In 1974, Dr. Marling organized “Federal Art in Cleveland: 1933-1943,” an exhibition sponsored by the Cleveland Pubic Library. Outstanding examples of Cleveland FAP, including many Oxford ceramics, were featured in the exhibition and accompanying catalog. Upon their return to Oxford, the ceramics were placed in a display case purchased by the school PTA.

In 2000, Oxford Elementary underwent yet another round of maintenance and renovation. Donalene Poduska once again spearheaded work to protect and preserve the murals. The Intermuseum Conservation Associates at Oberlin provided professional assessment and restoration. Glue used to adhere a protective covering over the murals in 1974 remained, discoloring Cinderella and figures in Pied Piper. A grant from the Cleveland Foundation funded the protection of the murals during the renovation process and their restoration to their former glory in time for the November 6th Board of Education meeting, held at Oxford.

 
 

It is interesting to note that the Oxford FAP murals and ceramics inspired later generations of artists. Edris Eckhardt volunteered at the school, helping students and parents create new art for many years. During the 50th anniversary of the school, in 1978, students painted a “modern” mural depicting the school building, the owl (located over the original entrance), and the gardening program.

Unfortunately, much of the art created under the WPA was lost or destroyed. Cleveland Heights is lucky to be home to such a wonderful collection of Federal Art. And we should be thankful to the experts and volunteers who worked diligently throughout the years to protect and preserve the wonderful pieces at Oxford Elementary School.

 

Much of the information for this article came from three sources: “Federal Art in Cleveland, 1933-1943” (exhibition catalog); “Edris Eckhardt: Cleveland Sculptor” by Ruth Dancyger; and the private papers of Donalene Poduska.

 
 
 
 

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