Artwork Found Within the Walls of Morse School

Juliet and Gyorgy Kepes Murals
mural2.pngWhen the Morse School was built, architect Carl Koch commissioned his friends, well- known Cambridge artists Juliet and Gyorgy Kepes, to design bold art panels for the hallways of the school. The Kepeses’ daughter, Julie Stone, recalls that Koch wanted her
parents to create the works in enamel, a medium that Koch felt would be not only durable but whose bold colors would harmonize with the overall design of the school.

Because of the size of the pieces Koch desired, the Kepeses could not bake the enameled panels in the small ovens which artists traditionally used. Julie remembered driving with her parents to Worcester where the management of the Bettinger enamel company allowed them to use the industrial ovens in which factory employers baked finishes onto household appliances. The Kepeses experimented with color and design, scooping granular pigments from big buckets onto metal sheets, making patterns by pressing leaves into the colors, then shoving the test pieces into enormous ovens heated to 2000°.

The Kepeses allowed Julie to make a few small test panels which she has kept. When her parents extracted the panels, the works were red hot. As the sheets cooled, the final colors emerged. After long hours of experimentation, Juliet and Gyorgy Kepes created the five bird and tree designs on both panels and tiles, which are still on view in the “A” wing of the school.

mural.jpgBorn in Hungary in 1906, Gyorgy Kepes began his career as a painter, but turned to photography and film-making, which he regarded as more honest and effective media. Kepes is perhaps best known as the founder of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Here he provided an opportunity for artists from all over the world to make public art in collaboration with scientists and engineers. In the mid 1980’s, the Cambridge Arts Council commissioned Gyorgy Kepes to create a stained glass wall “Blue Sky on the Red Line” for the Harvard Square bus station.

Born in England in 1919, Juliet Kepes has worked as a painter, sculptor, and graphic artist, and is highly acclaimed for her beautifully illustrated children’s books. In 1969, the New York Times selected her book Birds as the best illustrated book of the year. Her version of Five Little Monkeys was a Caldecott Medal Honor Book and the Society of Illustrators awarded her a citation of merit for Frogs Merry in 1962. The Kepeses had resided in Cambridge.

Main Lobby Mural by Tomie Arai 1999
To commemorate the school’s renovation, the Cambridge Arts Council commissioned a major new work of art for the Morse. A committee including the school principal, faculty, parents, and the architect in charge of the school’s renovation, unanimously selected New York artist Tomie Arai to create the piece. Her design for a brilliantly colored, silk screened mural captures the spirit and history of the school.

main_lobby_mural.pngIn the center stands the “tree of knowledge”, representing the school’s innovative Core Knowledge Sequence. Animals scamper along the banks of the Charles River, while children play nearby. Along the border of the mural, Arai symbolically represents the many countries from which the students of the Morse came from at the time. The original 1891 brick Morse School and other images, which evoke the history of the neighborhood, are woven into the design.

Tomie Arai grew up in New York City where she attended public schools. She began her career as an artist in the 1970’s, making murals for community centers and public spaces. Arai is the granddaughter of Japanese Farmers who immigrated to the United States in the 1940’s, and her cultural heritage often influences her work. In addition to producing award winning paintings and prints, Arai has illustrated children’s books, including Sachiko Means Happiness by Kimiko Sakai (1990), the story of a girl who forges a new relationship with a grandmother who no longer recognizes her; and China’s Bravest Girl: the Legend of Hua Mu Lan by Charlie Chan (1993), which tells the story of the legendary girl warrior in both Chinese characters and English words. She is also featured in Just Like Me, a book for children in which artists explain why they chose their careers.

Asa P. Morse
asa_morse.jpgBorn in 1818 in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Asa P. Morse attended the town’s district schools. After working for one year in a dry goods store in Holden, Massachusetts, he came to Boston in 1840 to seek his fortune. Following a short stint as a bookkeeper for merchants trading with the West Indies he went into business for himself and prospered.

In 1845, Morse married Dorcas Louisa Wise, and moved to Cambridgeport where he lived until his death in 1906. He invested in real estate and for thirty-five years served on the board of the Cambridgeport National Bank, for many years as president. For sixteen years he was an active member of the Cambridge school board. When the Morse School was dedicated in 1891, only one other person in history of the city had served longer then he. Active in local politics, Morse was also elected to both houses of the Massachusetts State Legislature.

Asa and Dorcas Morse had three children: Mary Louisa, Velma Maria and Arthur. In 1924, the daughters became benefactors of the school.  They established the Asa P. Morse Trust for the purchase of books and periodicals for the teachers’ library; books for the pupils library; pictures, and cast models for artwork; flags, musical instruments and any other desirable accessories that were not provided for said school by the City of Cambridge.

120 years later and counting, the students of the Morse School still appreciate Asa P. Morse’s contributions to educating the children of Cambridge.

History content & Asa P. Morse bio written by: Gretchen Adams for the Re-dedication Booklet – February 28, 1999.

Learn More
The Original Morse School, 1891 - 1956
The Morse School Gets Renovated 1999
The Morse School, 1957 - 1997

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