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Whitewater Valley Arts Association remembers Fritz Conwell

Joe Wells peeks from behind his Fritz Conwell painting, so large he had to deliver it in a trailer, as he and others take it in the front door of the Whitewater Valley Arts Association gallery Saturday for the opening of the Puttin’ On The Fritz show Friday.

By DARRELL SMITH - dsmith@newsexaminer.com

The Whitewater Valley Arts Association remembers a Connersville artist who is still recalled mostly for his works as well as some of his eccentricities with its next exhibit.

Puttin’ on the Fritz opens Friday to honor Fritz Conwell, who died in 1958.

Wednesday morning, 25 pieces of Conwell’s work had been received from private collections for the display that will run through the first week of September.

Born in 1888, Conwell was a descendant of the city’s second settler, A.B. Conwell, according to Brad Colter in Looking Back. He received his artistic ability from his mother, who had been an artist. His father performed for the Barnum & Bailey Circus as an acrobat.

He began to make a nice living in painting advertising on local businesses. He incorporated his love for show business in his craft, Colter noted. Many fabulous murals could be seen on building walls or  storefront windows. Some of this work still remains today. In his down time, he enjoyed being in the hills of Fayette and Franklin counties, painting the beautiful landscapes.

One of his most unusual paintings is a very large one of school children exiting a school that is being loaned for the exhibit by Joe Wells. He delivered the painting Saturday.

The painting, 8 foot 10 inches wide and 5 feet 8 inches tall, inside the 3 inch frame, had to be delivered in an enclosed trailer and brought in the front door, too long to make the turns if brought in the back door.

The painting is also too large to hang, so it is set on low tables.

“We had it down at the house for a long time. I don’t recollect where we got it but we’ve had it for years and years,” Wells said. “It sat at the house for maybe 20 years and now sat in town (in one of the family’s buildings) for probably two years.”

There is no date on the picture, which is unusual for Conwell because he normally dated his pictures, said Gayle Siebert, an Arts Association member. The children in the picture are reminiscent of Dick and Jane from the old first grade reading books.

A large Conwell landscape painting donated to Historic Connersville Inc. for display in the Fayette County Historical Museum is unfortunately not available for the exhibit because it is being restored.

Siebert recalled Conwell had painted a huge Santa Claus for Maplewood Elementary School that each year would be brought out as part of the Christmas display. When the school had a principal change, the old principal either took it or it got lost somewhere, but no one knows what became of that painting.

She and husband Doug brought in a painting for display but she did not have the history for it because they won it in a drawing.

Two Conwell paintings went to auction at the annual St. Gabriel Church auction and flea market this spring which went for a combined approximately $1,000, Doug said.

Nancy and John Johnson brought several Conwell works, including a picture of Jesus, as if rising from the grave or ascending to heaven. Curtis Potters, a member who took delivery of the paintings, said that painting is 8 inches but there is a similar painting at some church that is 8-foot tall.

Jim Wicker, 84, is one the few who can remember Conwell. “I remember as a kid, I wasn’t very old, I don’t know that I ever talked or had a conversation with him but I can remember him painting windows and so forth, generally signs on the windows,” he recalled. “He would always say ‘Hi brother,’ as people went by. I think I remember this right, he wore a beret and he wore a flowing type scarf, like a French painter.”

Colter agreed with Wicker that Conwell wore a beret, smock and a French-looking, wide bow tie.

Wicker could not remember the monkey but remembered a big painting on the window for Duffy’s Tavern. He remembers the original Methodist Church on East 4th Street, later sold to the German Presbyterian Church, had a large painting on a wall. It has since been painted over.

He said Cramers on Grand Avenue had all Conwell paintings after his death. The Art Association had a showing and sale of those works.

Wicker went to the auction and bought two signed paintings and three unsigned, that sold for little money. He also bought an oil portrait of girl signed “L.L. Conwell.” Many believe that to be his mother.

He delivered to the gallery one of the signed paintings, a painting of a Venice, Italy canal, and two advertising signs. Those signs encouraged customers at Rembu Sporting Goods to put items on layaway. Conwell likely painted those in the 1940s. His father worked at Rembu.

Ava Moore, at First United Methodist Church, said there used to be a large Conwell painting in the now-closed Hearthstone Restaurant outside Metamora, but is not sure what happened to it.

The opening is 6-8 p.m. Friday at the gallery, 402 Central Ave.