Artist of Apponaug mural remains a mystery


Just when it looked like the mystery of the Apponaug mural was solved; it took a new twist.

“It looks like we’re back to square one,” Jan Marshall of the City Clerk’s office said last week after hearing from the artist who was believed to have done the work depicting Apponaug Four Corners at the turn of the century. The mural’s three panels, which were discovered in the city archives by City Clerk Marie Ahlert, show a horse-drawn trolley and a woman crossing the corners in front of the Apponaug Hotel. The Pawtucket Credit Union now sits on the site of the hotel.

Marshall hopes to identify the artist in her efforts to win a grant to restore the work. And after that is done, Ahlert suggests the canvas mural that is about five feet high and 10 feet long be mounted in the clerk’s office and readily available for public viewing.

Initially, it was presumed the mural hung in City Hall and was taken down at some point during renovations. It was also thought to date to the early or mid 1900s.

But all that changed when Mike Ferrante came forward following a story on the work. Ferrante immediately identified it as coming from the Mr. Donut coffee shop that once stood where Walgreens is today. Not only did he remember it being in the shop, but also he knew it was painted in 1974 or a year later. He also believed he met the artist who he described as a man in his 20s.

That news had Marshall thinking she was hot on the trail to finding the artist.

Then things turned around.

Looking at the work, City Historian Henry Brown was convinced that Cay Epstein painted it. The mural is unsigned and it is missing a section, apparently cut out for a wall outlet. That piece is thought to have contained the artist’s name.

Brown knew Epstein moved from Warwick but didn’t know where. He remembered her studio and the fact she painted the scene of a racing horse-drawn fire pumper on the exterior wall of the Lakewood Firefighters’ hall.

Marshall tracked Epstein down to Bellville, Texas, a town of about 4,000. Following the death of her husband, Epstein reverted to using her maiden name of Wade. But, while she recalls doing the Lakewood mural and another mural for Park School, Wade is certain the Apponaug piece is not hers.

“It’s not mine,” she said emphatically in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Now 83, Wade has stopped painting because of failing eyesight. Nonetheless, she warmed to the challenge of identifying the artist and offered the names of several local artists who she thought might help. Unfortunately, two of her leads, Maxwell Mays and Spencer Crooks, are no longer living.

On the other hand, Ferrante hasn’t given up the chase. He cited the name of the original owner of Mr. Donut and recalled how the mural had been removed when the business was sold. When it was sold again in 1989 to the shop’s former manager and baker, Ferrante helped remount it. He’s provided Marshall with the names of those people and she’s hopeful they’ll come through.

When Ferrante learned of Brown’s identification of Epstein as the artist, he thought that perhaps the young man he met back in the ’70s could have been one of her students.

He’s also sure he’s seen a photo taken in 1904 that depicts the same scene, down to the trolley and watering fountain that was once at the corners and is now at the Dorothy Mayor Park next to St. Barnabas Church.

So now the search is for the artist and the photograph.


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