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Historically Inspired Walls

A contemporary muralist continues in the tradition of Rufus Porter.

Veering in front of a half dozen gravel trucks bent on my destruction, I turned off of busy Route 44 in Middleboro, MA, and onto a quiet side road. With one eye on the odometer and the other on the undulating path, I followed my scrawled instructions and turned left at a hidden entrance precisely 1.7 miles from the highway. The unpaved drive led me through a canopy of sugar maples deep in the throes of their autumnal blazing, and as I approached a clearing, I could see the charming, restored 1780s home belonging to Tom and Laurie.

The owners greeted me at the front door and led me into their dining room, where I was introduced to Susan Dwyer of East Greenwich, RI. Susan had been commissioned to create a mural in Tom and Laurie’s dining room, and she was busy painting the leaves on a tiny row of trees near a riverbank. Shifting her brush to her left hand, she

clasped my right with hers and then immediately returned to her task; the water-based paints set quickly, leaving little time for chit-chat. The room’s woodwork had been freshly painted, and I was pleased to see that all of its details remained intact including the 18th century wainscoting and mantel.

Dwyer’s murals, just like the one she was executing in Middleboro, are delightful, yet haunting landscapes rendered with the slightly skewed, naïve perspective of the late 18th and early 19th century itinerant painters. Nearby

willows and beeches loom large and stark, while tiny fruit tress dot riverbanks at the foothills of distant, rolling mountains. Winding dirt roads connect saltboxes and churches, and three-masted ships with billowing sails stream away from port, creating an idyllic panorama. Dwyer uses organic, warm colors to further enhance the reverie.

Susan is a classically trained artist who earned a BFA from the Hartford Art School in 1991. She has also studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale as well as in Paris. Dwyer has always been obsessed with Early American history and decorative arts, and wanted a career in art, but asked herself which path would always be challenging and never boring. She became enchanted by the work of the itinerant painter and muralist Rufus Porter who wandered New England stenciling and painting murals through countless homes.

“In matching Porter’s style, I had to ‘unlearn’ my classical training” states Dwyer “I had to loosen up and work with the same techniques as he did, although my training has served me well: I’ve studied aspects of color theory and composition that the average painter can’t pick up from a few lessons at a country craft shop.”

The water-based artist colors are remarkable resilient and need no over-glaze to protect them. “The only exception to this is in bathroom, kitchen or commercial applications, where they are subject to higher levels of abuse,” Susan notes, “No matter how matte manufacturers claim their glazes are, they still has some level of

sheen to it, and I want to replicate the dead-flat qualities of the historic finish.” In fact, without the glaze, my murals look better each day they age, gaining more patination.”

“After I’m finished painting,” she adds, “I’ll then age the mural to give the impression that it has been there for a couple of centuries.”

Dwyer also paints portraits by commission as well, and can render a loved one or favorite historical figure in colonial attire. She is particularly adept in her use of candlelight to illuminate faces with its soft glow.

Susan quotes by the job, and happily gives free estimates. She informed me what Tom and Laurie were paying for their entire room, and I was surprised at its affordability. She also told me that typically the client does or provides all the preparation work, presenting her with smooth, primed walls, which reduces her billable time.

Tom and Lori’s dining room, which is a typical, but ample, dining room of this period, would take about two full days to complete. When I remarked on how brief that interval was, Dwyer informed me the Porter could complete a bedroom in a day!

Susan has traveled as far as Minnesota, Baltimore and Pennsylvania, and worked throughout New England. She has also journeyed throughout New England to study Porter’s work and studied at least 20 Porter’s murals and his brushstrokes.

Aside from authenticity, Dwyer touts the great charm and attraction of having a mural painted because “no two are alike; you can personalize it with the things that are important to you. I can put your house in it, the church you were married in, the old mill down the road, and your kids. The mural becomes the story of your life.”

Susan Dwyer Early American Art
84 Hickory Drive
East Greenwich, RI 02818

Our staff features writer, Dan Cooper has been working on old houses for over 20 years, and also writes for Old House Interiors, Period Homes, Cottages and Bungalows amongst other magazines on the subject of architecure, antiques and design.