Save the ladies

It's hard to remember all the dust that got kicked up when Hygienic Art first unveiled a mural, back in 1999, that soon became known as the naked ladies.

Actually, they are not fully naked, just exposed in places their Greek-style gowns don't quite cover, mainly breasts and, in one instance, a little more posterior than you might expect to see.

I suspect some of the angst from the more puritanical among us had to do with the prominence of the painting. The larger-than-life ladies have a very visible perch looming over the busy traffic of Bank Street.

In the end, the ladies settled in for good on Bank Street, an odd neoclassic image hovering over the hubbub of downtown.

Maybe the dust settled when people began to realize Bank Street has seen a lot of real debauchery over the years.

After all, Bank Street was traditionally a commercial drag through a busy port town, with sailors pursuing shore leave and, presumably, ladies.

Oddly enough, it is not protests that have now put the ladies at risk, it is the deterioration of the outer coating of the wall of the Hygienic building, the canvas, of sorts, for the mural.

Fortunately, I'm happy to report, help is on the way.

I am generally not a big fan of urban murals, especially when they are used, as they have been in New London, to liven up or masquerade other shortcomings, like empty storefronts and neglected buildings.

And yet the ladies have provided much of what you might expect from public art. They are prominent, thought-provoking and, I would say, quite beautiful, an engaging and provocative addition to the streetscape as well as an appropriate emblem for an organization that has done so much to promote the arts in the city.

What first-time visitor to the city wouldn't take stock of the ladies?

"It's always amazing for me to see," the mural artist Terry Davo Davis told me this week, when I asked him about the mural and the restoration effort. "I do enjoy it."

I was glad to hear that, even after all these years, Davis is still a little tickled each time he goes down Bank Street and sees the ladies. I am too, and I suspect others are as well.

We also all now have a chance to express our gratitude to the Hygienic, not just for the ladies but for everything the nonprofit arts organization does for the city.

The Hygienic is in the midst of a Save the Ladies campaign, hoping to match a grant of almost $25,000 from the state Department of Economic Development Office of the Arts.

You can donate by going to the website, hygienic.org, or be sending a check to the Hygienic at P.O. Box 417, New London, CT 06320.

The money will be used for masonry repairs to the exterior skin of the building, which has cracked with water penetration, and fixing the actual painting.

Davis, who painted the original with the help of two other artists, will consult on the repairs.

A. Vincent Scarano, president of Hygienic Art, noted the ladies have found a good home in New London.

"The mural is kind of an iconic image of the Hygienic and the renaissance of the arts in New London," Scarano said.

Donating to their restoration is also a way of saying thanks to a nonprofit that voluntarily pays taxes on the residential portion of its building.

That's a fine example, too, of generosity and public mindedness that much richer institutions, like the city's colleges and hospital, should take note of.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

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