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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    If these walls could talk: Artist keeps Garde murals pristine

    Artist Elaine Mills works on touching up a small area of a mural Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022 in the Garde Arts Center. As Executive Director Steve Sigel says, Mills has been keeping the Garde interior design looking as fresh as it was when she helped restore it 24 years ago. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Elaine Mills walks along a mural while looking for small areas that need touching up in the Garde Arts Center. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Artist Elaine Mills works on touching up a small area of a mural in the Garde Arts Center. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    When you step into the Garde Arts Center in New London for the first time, you invariably notice the walls painted with extravagant Moroccan-themed murals and designs.

    It looks, as the designers intended, as if theatergoers were gazing out from inside a tent to see vibrant desert scenes — elephants, camels and people in a procession of life heading toward the sea.

    When artist Elaine Mills steps inside the Garde, she looks more closely. Is any paint worn off? Is there a chipped area that needs to be repaired?

    Mills, who lives in Stonington, was part of a team of people who worked on the Garde’s interior restoration in the late 1990s, which was based on the original design from the theater’s 1926 opening. She painted 95% of the two murals along the auditorium’s downstairs walls, and she did work in the lobby as well.

    Since then, Mills has been the caretaker of those walls and more. As Executive Director Steve Sigel says, she has been keeping the Garde interior design looking as fresh as it was when she helped restore it 24 years ago.

    The projects are both big and small.

    On a recent morning, a corner of a column in the lobby needed repair.

    When water damaged the wall near the exit to the left of the stage, Mills stepped in to repaint it.

    She had to refresh a mural in the balcony; the person who had originally painted it hadn’t used a clear coating, as Mills does, and so ushers or patrons brushing up against it over the years eventually wore off some of the paint.

    The ‘wow’ factor

    The Garde opened in 1926, but its distinctive interior was painted over through the years. During an architectural analysis in the 1990s, theater restoration specialists David and Patti Hannivan from Toronto uncovered the venue’s original wall and ceiling paint colors, the geometric stenciling, and the bas-relief walls.

    The duo then indicated the color choices and patterns that formed the basis for the interior’s restoration. They trained and supervised the work of 65 painting volunteers during the summer of 1999.

    In the 24 or so years since then, Sigel says, the Garde hired Mills ”to help maintain all the color schemes and (fix) the bumps and the cracks and the chipped plaster. Whether it’s in the historic theater or even in the new lobby, which has a more modern look, she’s the keeper of the molds and the colors. I try not to do anything without first asking her. No one here touches the walls. … The best interior design scheme is maintained by you being totally unaware that anything was done to cover over — everything has to blend in as if it’s as pristine as (when it was) originally done.”

    Mills’ attention to detail is significant. When the Garde installed a new digital cinema system in 2014, it had surround speakers, which are black boxes. She painted those speakers so they would blend in, and she draped the speakers with compatible fabric she found at Joann Fabric and Craft Store. Sigel recalled that the installer, Boston Light & Sound, said they had never seen any theater go to the extent the Garde did and to do it so well. Sigel said the speakers look like little Moroccan jewel boxes.

    Every time Sigel gives a tour of the Garde, the visitor says some variation of “Wow.” And that includes artists who perform there. Even a child who was at the Garde recently was overheard exclaiming, "Wow, this is a palace!”

    Back in the beginning

    Mills was asked to help with the restoration of the Garde’s interior by Dan Morse; she had been a scenic painter for the American Musical Theater, which Morse ran.

    When Mills saw the finished interior in 1999, she said she was “just amazed by the whole thing.”

    She added, “You want to have an experience when you come to a theater. And I think that’s what this whole redesign did.”

    With the cavernous interior, Mills said, it’s like “you’re in a place that kind of goes back in time. And it does take you to another space.”

    She recalled that, while the restoration process was nearing its completion, she was sitting in the balcony having her lunch while the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and a guest soloist rehearsed onstage.

    “I was just blown away by how beautiful (the soloist’s) music was, and the entire place was alive, too … Chills,” she said.

    Coats of many colors

    The Day newspaper wrote about the Garde’s Moroccan interior in the 1920s: “The color scheme is devoid of bright gilt but is of pleasing quiet tone, giving a cool effect, with designs and scenes from the Orient. The ceiling background is of a dull orange color with the beam work standing cut with quiet Oriental designs in figures. On either side wall are depicted desert scenes with a beautiful perspective on a mountainous background brought out in harmonious contrast to the foreground desert effect. In panels on either side of the interior are portraits separate in themselves but in harmony with the general decoration plans.”

    The theater was designed by architect Arland Johnson, with murals by artist Vera Leeper.

    Writing about Leeper, The Day stated that the Garde was the first theater to use morene, which was “mixed with colors to obtain the desired color effect and plastered on the rough cement walls with a knife, giving the effect of a bas relief, a distinct advantage over the flat paint scheme.”

    The theater, which originally offered movies and vaudeville acts, thrived for a while but eventually fell on hard times. In 1985, the spot was established as what it is now: a nonprofit performing arts venue called the Garde Arts Center.

    Then came the 1990s renovation.

    “When I was first asked to come in and look at it … I thought it was an exciting project,” Mills recalled. “They had taken all of the old chairs out. They had created scaffolding all the way to the ceiling (for the people who painted it).”

    When she originally saw the space, it was all painted white, covering decades of other shades.

    “It had many colors underneath it – it had been painted black, it had been painted green. There was a green that was very strong so it might have been a very intense material, I don’t know what it was … When stuff gets really chipped off, the green will still show up sometimes,” Mills said.

    There were also images to be unearthed on the walls. People before Mills arrived had chipped away, until relief images that Leeper had created came to light.

    “It was like an archaeological dig to discover what was behind all this white,” she said.

    The material that Leeper used was clearly very strong and durable to have stayed discernable for almost a century, Mills noted.

    Mills said that Leeper was a storyteller and puppeteer, and her Garde murals have “a little bit of a children’s book illustration feeling to them.” Mills kept that notion going in murals she created on walls that hadn’t existed in Leeper’s time. When a double exit door was downsized to single one, leaving new empty wall space, Mills created an image of a girl, since she hadn’t seen anyone young pictured in the murals, taking care of a pigeon.

    Inspiration from Al Hirschfeld

    For a part of the auditorium wall near the back and to the audience’s right, Mills had to fill another space that didn’t have an existing image.

    Mills wanted to create an archway and a small city in the distance and was inspired by paintings by legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. She attended an opening of an exhibition of his work in New Britain, and while it mostly featured the caricatures of the Broadway stars and celebrities that he was famous for, there were also two of his paintings of Morocco. Mills thought they were beautiful and were exactly the kind of thing she wanted to do in the Garde.

    “I got to talk to (Hirschfeld) about it. I said, ‘I love your Moroccan paintings. I’m so taken by them.’ He said, ‘Nobody ever mentions those,’” she said, since they weren’t the type of art he was known for.

    Mills loved “the intensity of the colors and the light in Morocco. You want to be there.”

    Writing the book

    Mills likes the problem-solving aspect of the work. Home owners know how difficult it is, when doing repairs, to get new paint to match an old coat. Mills manages because she has a good eye and knows color. She uses the three primary colors in almost everything inside the Garde; when she paints in general, she likes to include those because they make for a richer result.

    She’s now putting together a book describing what combination of colors create various shades on the Garde walls. She also explains the process — how a sponge is used to apply the paint in a certain case, for example.

    Why the book? “I’m not going to live forever,” she said with a laugh.

    Her art history

    Mills, now 68, grew up near Washington, D.C., and was always interested in a combination of entertainment and art. She remembers making posters for shows she and her friends would put on.

    “In elementary school, the teacher would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Can you come out and work on the display case in the hallway? Can you do that for us?’ ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’” she recalled.

    Mills started her career as a caricaturist and portrait artist when she was 16 and a student at The Maryland School of Art and Design. She later attended the Parsons School of Design in New York, where she studied photography, communication design, painting and illustration. (She still does some fabric design and, on a recent day, was wearing a scarf featuring her design.)

    During the early 1970s, she lived in New York City. She was an illustrator for McGraw Hill Publishers and Smith Corona. She was one of three people who won a contest to create images using typewriter cartridges with different colors; Mills’ result ran in Cosmopolitan magazine.

    She moved to Connecticut in 1975 and studied at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts. She was a freelance illustrator for The Day. She worked as a designer at Foxwoods’ Fox Theater for about a year.

    She created the line-drawn dog logo for the Dog Watch restaurant in Stonington.

    Mills continues to create impressionist fine art as well as caricatures, the latter often for parties and events. She does a lot of commission work, too, as she did for the oldest all-men’s club in Newport. The club’s interior boasts caricatures of its members, so she had to draw several that, in addition to their faces, included each man’s personal accouterments like the details of the tie he wore or of the boat or plane he owned.

    “It was a lot of fun … but it was a lot of work,” she said.

    She was also hired to create a caricature when the CEO of Amtrak was leaving the job and going home to Rome.

    Mills has done labels for a trio of Stonington Vineyards’ wine. Mills, who loves working outside, also grew grapes at Stonington Vineyards for a decade.

    “I always had side jobs. As a freelance artist, you get work sometimes but not all the time,” she said.

    The variety of work, particularly artistic work, suits her.

    “I enjoy doing a lot of different things,” she said.

    And she has fans. Sigel said of Mills’ work at the Garde: “We’re just lucky to have her, that’s all I can say.”

    k.dorsey@theday.com

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