Little-known paintings adorn church walls

March 14, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

As if afraid that the 17 paintings surrounding her might overhear and be offended, a woman in the meeting room of Camp Hill-Wesley United Methodist Church lowered her voice to a barely audible pitch.

"People find them by mistake," she whispered about the Garnet W. Jex paintings, all of which depict Harpers Ferry as it appeared from 1925 through 1961.

Many people may not know the paintings - described by some people as priceless - even exist.

A resident of Washington, D.C., Jex found an affinity for Harpers Ferry. Before he died in 1979, he made arrangements for the paintings to be presented to the town.


He made just two stipulations.

"The first was that they remain together, and the second was that they not be given to the National Park Service," said Anne Dungan, a trustee for the paintings.

After a fellow artist donated his paintings to Park Service officials in Washington, Jex became dismayed when he later saw some of the work on a trash heap.

Although Dungan is certain local Park Service officials would not be so callous, they have honored Jex's wishes and not made any attempts to obtain the paintings. However, photographs of the paintings were taken and can be purchased, in postcard format, at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Bookstore.

Transported to another time

Looking over the paintings, one sees a time when Harpers Ferry's streets were dirt, when horse-drawn carts and carriages bumped along those roads.

"Toward Bolivar," dated 1961, was the last painting Jex did for the collection. He painted it after realizing he had not depicted a springtime scene, said Dungan, whose mother knew Jex personally.

The painting shows white buds on trees and grass that looks to be impossibly green.

"One of the Last Steam Locomotives" (1951) depicts an autumn scene, with a train puffing steam in the background and trees with orange and red leaves in the foreground.

Summer and winter are represented as well.

In four paintings, the sleepy town rests beneath a blanket of snow.

A summer scene, "Near the Station" (1932) shows a couple ambling down a side street. The man, wearing blue overalls and a blue cap, looks to be carrying a lunch pail.

Only "The Mill" (1946) seems out of place. Rather than showing the town or adjacent rivers, the painting is drab and gray. It shows numerous factory plumes of smoke and a dump truck being loaded.

Although most likely her least favorite painting, Dungan said "The Mill" depicts an important aspect of the area. Smaller surrounding towns, including Bakerton, were built around quarries.

Douglas Fraim, pastor of Camp Hill-Wesley United Methodist Church, said Jex's work shows an era of the town that, for better or worse, is gone forever.

"I love them. I think they're really beautiful," Fraim said. "He did an excellent job capturing the history of this town."

People who have lived in the town all of their lives look at the paintings and are transported to another time. Still, some of the history has not been lost. Fraim pointed to "11:30 Train" (1931), which shows passengers waiting for an approaching train.

"We can go down and still see the train station and still see the church on the hill," Fraim said.

From the heat to the hills

On a church wall above a Washington Star article telling of Jex's death is a framed statement by Jex about the paintings.

It reads, in part: "Presented to the community by the artist in recollection of many pleasant days among charming streets and buildings, beside the rivers, and upon the hills; in appreciation also of the hospitality of townspeople and the companionship of artist friends who have painted here."

Jex wrote that "these pictures span a period dating from 1925 before the Great Depression (when more free riders could be counted on a freight train than passengers on the Capitol Limited), through the floods of 1936 and after, and into the new era of restoration by the National Park Service."

All of the paintings had been exhibited, he wrote.

Before air conditioning became a summertime staple in homes and businesses, many people from Washington fled from the stifling heat to places like Harpers Ferry. Dungan's grandmother ran a boarding house, where Jex stayed.

Although Dungan, 60, said she must have talked with Jex, she cannot remember any specific conversations. She does remember what he looked like.

A native of Kent, Ohio, Jex worked as a medical illustrator for the Army Medical Corps for two years before he was named the art editor of Nature Magazine, where he worked from 1927 to 1931, according to several sources.

He then worked for 26 years as an artist and designer with the U.S. Public Health Service.

Along with scenes of Harpers Ferry, Jex also painted sites along the Potomac River, including the C&O Canal, and Civil War scenes. He painted murals in the reptile house at the National Zoo in Washington.

He was 83 when he died on Sept. 21, 1979, a week after suffering a stroke.

A missing original

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