Following the March 23, 2022, fire at the Thatcher Company plant on Route 104 in Williamson, demolition work uncovered a mural hidden behind an interior wall, signed and dated in 1974. The mural, unknown to the present owners, came as quite a surprise. Thatcher Facility Maintenance Manager, Mike Keller wanted to find the artist and preserve this historic artwork.
Keller contacted Williamson Code Enforcement Officer, Duane Smeatin, who, in turn contacted Marion Town Historian, Caryn Devlin. Seneca Foods had previously owned the building and its headquarters are in Marion. Smeatin thought Devlin might be interested. After viewing the mural herself, Devlin contacted Bicentennial Co-Chair, Gene Bavis. Bavis contacted Jean Bell, asking if she ever painted a mural for Thatcher or Seneca Foods. Jean indeed was the artist of this mural titled “Apple Harvest.”
In 1974, Jim Howard from Ontario, the company Plant Manager for Seneca Foods, which processed applesauce, asked Jean to paint ”something with apples” on a wall in their office area. She agreed. Historical details are the way the branches were pruned for hand-picking, a three-legged ladder used to get close to a tree, and a picker’s canvas shoulder bag. The bag, contoured to the body, has a drawstring at the bottom to release the apples. At the special request of Jim’s secretary, Jean painted a squirrel at floor level.
The illustrative style 9 by 26-foot-wide mural is duotone. Duotone was a popular technique for illustration in print, and it suited the budget and timeframe available. Painting the mural took about two weeks.
At some point the mural was covered by an interior wall and good fortune through a destructive event - the mural was discovered. So, what is to become of this historic local artwork? How will the mural be restored and preserved for future generations to enjoy?
A shed roof will be built over the area to keep the mural protected from weather, as the mural wall will be part of an outdoor Thatcher employees’ break space. At Thatcher’s request, Bell will have a primary role in the restoration of “Apple Harvest.” Possible treatments and enhancements for the mural were discussed during a meeting with Bell, Bavis, Thatcher representatives, Keller and Plant Manager, Fabian Taylor, and Mural Mania leader, Mark DeCracker.
New contemporary content will be introduced and provide a setting for the original mural. The left will feature modern apple trees, pruned, and trained to grow on fences, and field crops in full color. The right will feature a dairy scene. The themes are in keeping with Thatcher’s support of agriculture and dairy farming.
DeCracker, a promoter and muralist for an organization called Mural Mania, is responsible for most of the outdoor public murals across Wayne County. Mural Mania artists will offer their talents and expertise in the restoration of “Apple Harvest.”
Muralist, Jean Bell’s life is living art.
Freelancing for hire and volunteer work, Jean has been involved in the local art world through numerous undertakings. A sample are: community theater stage and costume design; working with students in stage design; historic painting depicting family histories; photo slide shows for former Ontario Town Historian; Virginia Scully; illustrating end papers in two Ontario history books; and much more.
Before obtaining a degree in Communications and working at Xerox Corporation, Jean intensely studied color science. A Xerox manager asked her to paint an “interesting picture” of a 1970s color copier, because otherwise, he said, it “looked like a washing machine.”
“I imagined it with three colored light sources and made the overlapping shadows follow the rules of color mixing.” A decade later, as a technical writer, trainer, and Quality Manager for Xerox, in 1991, Jean’s art experience with color mixing became useful, as she wrote the color modules for service, sales, and customer training on the new color copier. Jean retired from Xerox in 1999.
Family collaborations are important. In 2016, Jean and her husband George, a wood carver, mentored an Eagle Scout candidate whose project resulted in two portable murals for St. Mary’s Church in Ontario. Jean has worked with daughter, Linda, on art and communication projects, with son, Greg, on stage design and set building at his kids’ school, and with son, David, on 3-D murals for his home. Now, with George as researcher and Jean as publisher, the couple produce family histories through their publishing venture “Wayne & Ridge Publishing.”
From family projects and historical paintings to large scale murals for local businesses, Jean is a powerhouse of artistic energy.
Though circumstances unfortunate to Thatcher due to the fire this past spring, moving forward, great collaborations have evolved.
The Wayne County Bicentennial Committee is so pleased Jean’s hidden 1974 mural for Seneca Foods was discovered. This unique historic uncovering has led to a partnership between the Bicentennial Committee, Mural Mania, Thatcher Company, and Jean Bell to create a monumental mural commemorating Wayne County’s history on the Thatcher Building.Come check it out! Wayne County IS historic to the core!
by Rosa Fox, Bicentennial Co-Chair with Jean Bell, Muralist