Side Order: Awe-inspiring art in a Maine meetinghouse
By Joe Yonan,
You don’t just happen upon the South Solon Meeting House. Solon, a town of fewer than 1,000 people smack dab in the middle of Maine, is at the southern edge of the Old Canada Road Scenic Byway, a section of Highway 201 that meanders through villages, along lakes and through woods to the Canadian border. Even if you came here for the byway, though, you’d probably still miss the meetinghouse, because you have to turn off 201 and head down some little winding residential roads before you’ll see it.
My sister and I didn’t even know about the byway; we were aiming straight for the meetinghouse. We’d been directed to it by an art gallery worker in nearby Skowhegan. The gallery was showing mid-century work of painters from the renowned Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and our enthusiastic response quickly led her to ask, “Have you been to the South Solon Meeting House yet?” When we said no, she persuaded us to make the 20-minute drive.
The crisp white Gothic Revival building is nestled against a clutch of pines and across the road from a field that looks like something that Andrew Wyeth would paint. When we pulled up, a man in a T-shirt and jeans was mowing the lawn just inside a low stone wall, and his dog, Lily, an energetic shepherd type, barked away at us as we parked. The man stopped mowing, came up and introduced himself as Andy Davis from the historical society that has just spent $200,000 to restore the 1842 building. “There’s a concert tonight,” he said, then looked skyward. “I sure hope the weather holds out.”
Soon enough, he picked up on our impatience. “Oh, have you never been here before?” he asked, echoing the gallery worker. He rushed to open the door for us, although it wasn’t locked. (It never is, as it turns out.)
We’d heard what awaited us, but we weren’t quite prepared for what we saw. The lines of the interior are stark, even plain. But every inch of wall and ceiling is covered in wild, sweeping, kaleidoscopic — almost psychedelic — frescoes, painted in the 1950s by artists from the Skowhegan School. We were overwhelmed.
The largest image is a huge face of Christ with trumpeting angels all around; it’s upside down from the audience’s perspective, which means that it was oriented to be seen by the speaker at the wide wooden podium. But I couldn’t take my eyes off a whirling image of a ball of trumpets, flames, wings, clouds, horns and — are those the Ten Commandments tablets? It started to make sense; there’s a man holding his hands up as if to worship. The whirling ball would be God, the worshiping man Moses.
Storm clouds rain on waves and ships in one section, and we spied an ark. Hands surround the sun in another; that would be Creation, right? And on and on. As Davis continued buzzing around the lawn with his mower and Lily trotted in and out and up and down the aisles to check on us, we marveled in every direction. Natural light filtered in from the large windows, and the effect was almost like that of seeing a fully tattooed body; we could back up and take it in as a whole, or get closer and become lost in the swirls of color, the symbols, the passionate energy of it all. The building seemed alive.
After taking turns standing at the podium, we headed toward the choir loft. At the bottom of the stairs, Davis pointed out the annotated diagram of the frescoes, listing artist and subject.
Later, when I read up on the building’s history, I learned that this was no Tom Sawyer-style, “Let’s all paint a church, kids” project. Three national competitions, juried by such prestigious judges as the directors of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, selected the young contemporary artists to paint the frescoes. They included some of the founders of the Skowhegan School, including Willard Cummings, Henry Varnum Poor and Sidney Simon. According to the South Solon Historical Society, the artists received these instructions: “There shall be no limitation of subject matter; however, bearing in mind the religious character of the building, which has been non-sectarian from its inception, it’s suggested that the New and Old Testaments offer rich and suitable subject matter. This material should be interpreted in imaginative terms which allow complete freedom to develop symbols, association, or legends.”
In the choir loft, we took turns ringing the bell, then kept gasping over more frescoes. Up here, they’re groups of angels with harps and lutes and horns and cymbals. One carries a man in flight; I struggled to remember the Bible studies of my youth, then gave up and just kept taking it in without trying to analyze.
Besides the frescoes themselves, the most surprising thing about the meetinghouse is that it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no admission fee or even an attendant. If Davis hadn’t been mowing, we wouldn’t have seen another soul. No wonder people come here for weddings and other celebrations, or to just sit and meditate, or like us, to wander around and marvel.
It was obvious with one whisper that another special thing about the place are the acoustics. “They’re fantastic,” said Davis, and not only when the music is of the organized variety. Once, he came in to find a couple playing guitar on stage, with no audience other than him.
He smiled at the memory: “The sound was just so, so sweet.”
South Solon Meeting House
South Solon Road and Meeting House Road
Open daily round the clock. Free, donations appreciated.
Yonan is on book leave in Maine. He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com.