Brought back to life: Art walk in Northampton will highlight restored work of late city muralist and portrait artist James Waldron

Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2014

Joan Ryan grew up hearing stories about her uncle James Madden Waldron, once an artist in the city. She remembers seeing him strolling through town, cutting a fine figure in his suit and tie as he made his way to local bars and restaurants or to his art studio.

Waldron was well-known in the city for his commissioned paintings and portraits, as well as for a number of murals that can still be seen today in locations in the downtown area.

Ryan, a Boston artist, has restored some of those paintings, and says she hopes to bring them back to public attention. They include the murals of Mexican (or Argentinian) peasants at Joe’s Café, a painting that has been restored and hung in Fitzwilly’s, and a mural depicting a street scene from Northampton’s earliest days as a city.

Ryan will lead a walking tour Saturday of those locations. The free event, “The Waldron Walk,” starts at 4 p.m. from Tully O’Reilly’s on Pearl Street and heads to other locations where Waldron’s paintings hang. Ryan and her brother W. Michael Ryan will discuss Waldron’s work, the restoration efforts and local history. The walk is expected to take an hour and a half and includes three stops at local restaurants that feature Waldron’s work.

As an art professor at Lesley University’s School of Art and Design in Boston, Ryan is required to do research so decided to embark on a project to revive Waldron’s paintings.

“As a relative of his, I also did not want his work to get lost as this community grows,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be assigned to someone else.” Ryan received a $680 grant from the Northampton Arts Council to unearth, research and restore some of Waldron’s artwork.

Off to war

Waldron was born in Northampton in 1913 to one of the city’s oldest families and died in 1963 of a heart attack. He attended St. Michael’s School, where in high school his art skills earned him a full scholarship to study art in Paris.

With World War II looming, however, Waldron ended up studying art in Philadelphia and Mexico; Ryan doesn’t know which art schools he attended. Before he was able to finish art school, Waldron either enlisted or was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces and was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, where he created watercolors of military life and landscapes of the Pacific Islands.

The talk Saturday will include a discussion about Waldron’s paintings of nurses in Korea and Okinawa, Japan, during WWII, which, according to Ryan, was unusual for the time because working women were not typically documented by artists, particularly in wartime scenes. Those wartime paintings of Pacific Island life are owned by Waldron’s nieces and nephews living in the Cape Cod area.

The restorations

After Waldron returned home to Northampton, he supported himself through his mural paintings and commissioned portraits in the Northampton area, according to Ryan. Growing up in the city, Ryan was familiar with some of the paintings.

In her 20s, Ryan remembers, she saw a Waldron mural depicting Robert E. Peary’s expedition to the North Pole hanging in the basement of the old City Café, which is now Tully O’Reilly’s, at 1 Pearl St. The painting originally had been installed in the former Rahar’s Hotel at 7 Old South St., where the official worldwide announcement that Peary had reached the North Pole was made by Herb Bridgman, a friend of Peary and an editor for the Brooklyn Bugle. Bridgman, who was visiting friends in the area, broke the news after getting the scoop from the explorer himself. The mural includes an image of Bridgman receiving word of the feat via telegram at the hotel desk and Perry’s team with sled dogs on the polar ice caps.

When Rahar’s closed, the mural was installed in the City Café, where it was mostly disregarded and had become a place where messages were posted for employees. Tully McColgan, owner of the downtown bar, gave the painting to Ryan who set about restoring it to its original colors and condition, including repainting snow that had yellowed, removing peeling paint, and fixing the hue of a sky that had turned from blue to green. She also repaired holes and damage to the surface.

While she retained all of Waldron’s brush strokes, Ryan stripped some of the discolored paint and glazed over it. After restoring the painting, Ryan arranged to hang it in Fitzwilly’s, in the back bar area, which is one of the stops on the tour.

Another stop will be Tully O’Reilly’s, where another of Waldron’s paintings, an 1840s street scene from early Northampton, hangs in the back. The painting includes an image of a woman pushing a baby in an old-fashioned carriage along Elm Street as a trolley car passes by. In the background stands St. Mary’s Church and a building that was once part of Smith College. Joan’s brother Michael, a lawyer, retired judge and former Northwestern District Attorney, said their father, the late Judge Luke Ryan, used to joke that he was the unseen baby in the carriage.

Also on the tour is Joe’s Café at 33 Market St., where Waldron painted wall murals of images that have been described as either Mexican or Argentinian cowboys and peasants. Ryan said she suspects the paintings were drawn from Waldron’s figure studies as an art student in Mexico, but they may also be images gleaned from Argentina because the original owner’s wife was Argentinian. The owners of Joe’s Café hired Ryan to restore and mend the murals separately from the restoration work that was funded through the arts council. Ryan did not entirely repaint the images to their original colors, but cleaned them with acetone and mineral spirits to remove dirt, fixed cracks and holes, and sealed them.

Over the years, Waldron made many other paintings, including portraits that are in private collections, a triptych at Saint Mary of the Assumption Parish, and a portrait of Michael F. Curtain, after whom the Florence VFW is named. He also painted Italian street scenes in the 1950s that hung at the former Aqua Vitae restaurant in Hadley, all of which are now in a private collection.

Ryan says she expects her other siblings — Tony Ryan, a school administrator in Granby, Maureen Ryan-Wise, formerly a lawyer and now a librarian at Smith Vocational School, Ann Ryan, an assistant preschool teacher, and Mary Ryan O’Connell, a lawyer — will all be part of the tour. Ryan commissioned her son, Charles Reed, a Boston artist, to create an illustration of the Waldron Walk, which will be made into a poster to commemorate the event. The poster will be raffled off at the walk.

In addition, Ryan says, those relatives on the Cape who are in possession of Waldron’s WWII paintings say they are thrilled about the project.

“They think it’s wonderful because Jimmy Waldron did so much work, but he never really got a lot of recognition from the community, although he was able to support himself as an artist here.”

For more information about the event visit jamesmaddenwaldron.weebly.com or send an email Joan Ryan at jryanstudio789@gmail.com.