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Port Jefferson artist Jennifer Hannaford, right, along with Linda Alfin, left, revitalized the Dickens Festival mural present in front of Chandler Square just off Main Street. Photo from Hannaford

It’s a scene straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, and has been displayed every holiday season for years.

Featuring buildings covered in snow, a big decorated tree and a sign that welcomes visitors to the annual Dickens Festival in the Village of Port Jefferson, the mural was starting to look a bit worn, according to local business leaders. 

“The cutout is pretty old,” said Barbara Ransome, director of operations for the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce. “Businesses were saying it was looking tired and asking if anything could be done.”

With the intention to clean up the painting and make it as good as new, Ransome asked two local artists to give the decade-old mural a facelift.

Linda Alfin and Jennifer Hannaford have been spending a good part of this past year decorating different spaces throughout the village. 

It started when Ransome and chamber president, Mary Joy Pipe, recruited the artists over the summer to decorate a set of electrical boxes and turn them into aquatic scenes in an attempt to beautify downtown.

“I’ve always understood that art can be powerfully transformative for a community, but engaging in this process has been fun because I get to see the change,” Hannaford said. “People also feel like their village is being cared for and, in turn, so are they.”

Since then, the pair has done several murals together throughout the village. 

“Linda is one of the most efficient painters I have ever seen,” Hannaford said. “I cannot say enough about her work ethic. I hope more folks take advantage of the fact that they have this kind of service and talent in their own town. I have learned a great deal from her this year.”

And the work didn’t stop for the artists come earlier this month. Alfin said that when Ransome called last minute asking if they could “freshen up” the scene, the two artists jumped on it. 

“The very next day we brought the mural back to life,” Alfin said. “Everyone walking by as we were painting was thanking us for repainting the mural.”

It took just two hours on Dec. 1 to make it vibrant, while the compliments and gratitude from residents touched the Port Jefferson muralist.

“A woman came up to us and was so happy to see us sprucing it up,” Alfin said.

While the Dickens Festival was canceled this year due to the COVID crisis, the snowmen in the scene can now greet visitors with a new smile, reminding them of what can hopefully be celebrated normally again next year. 

“I’m so happy to be able to help my town look more inviting and festive with all the murals we did so far throughout the village,” Alfin said.

Painting by Vance Locke

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

History Close at Hand has published the noteworthy and informative Setauket and Brookhaven History, a book that relates its story through the murals of Old Field artist Vance Locke (1913-1977). Commissioned by philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville as a gift to the community, the murals, completed in 1952, adorn the walls of the Setauket School’s Woodhull Auditorium.

Author Beverly C. Tyler

Beverly C. Tyler’s prose is crisp and his materials are well-chosen, clearly explaining the content of the murals. Throughout, he posits questions to the reader which will prompt further exploration. He often indicates where the reader can see the referenced locations and offers additional resources. He has selected quotes from the late historian William B. Minuse to further develop the narrative. Tyler touches on Locke’s process of conceptualizing and painting as well as his revising to get the correct representations.

One of the first ideas in the book — and a powerful one — is an explanation of Indigenous Culture. Tyler’s recognition bears repeating:

We call the native people who were the first humans to live here Native Americans or American Indians. A more accurate description might be Indigenous People. Everyone else who came, beginning with the English settlers are immigrants. It is important for me (personally) to say, “I wish to acknowledge that I am sitting on the land of the Setalcott Indigenous People in Setauket and I pay respect to the Setalcott people whose land is where I live.”

The murals, along with archaeological studies, have helped piece together the evolution of the changing lives on Long Island. Tyler presents how and when the facts were discovered. The murals progress through time, highlighting farming and millwork, the blacksmith and the shipwright. There is the cutting of ice and the mercantile and the purchase of land. The last is appropriately followed by an explanation that the Setalcotts did not share the same view of land ownership proffered by the English settlers.

The book is about craft and skills, commerce and community. Short anecdotes woven into the chronicle’s fabric augment the comprehensive facts and general text. For example, there is a quick account of the Daisy that sunk from a leak created by beans swelled by seawater, bursting the ship’s hull.

Often, there is the intersection of work and communal gatherings, represented by the uniquely American general store. With each section of the mural, Tyler gives background on the various aspects of day-to-day existence as well its historical relevance. The aspects of general life are enhanced with specific sketches and personal histories that surround a particular topic. Many of the names will be familiar to Long Island denizens. 

The most extended section deals with Setauket’s place in the Revolutionary War — especially George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring which was based in Setauket. In many ways, the first half of the book is building to this, allowing for context of the events.

Tyler uses both primary and secondary sources to enrich his telling of the story, shedding light on the challenges and sacrifices, the humanity and the intrigue. It is appropriately thorough but equally succinct.     

In addition to reprinting the murals in vivid color, there are photos of artifacts as well as the current sites and artifacts, reprints of period maps and documents, and stills of historical recreations. The plethora of illustrations are well-chosen for their interest and variety, and they effectively supplement the text.

Setauket and Brookhaven History is a slender book that is rich in detail and will hold the interest of readers of all ages. The ease of Tyler’s writing belies the hundreds of research hours that undoubtedly went into its creation. This edifying work is ideal to be read aloud and discussed. It will certainly stimulate thought and conversation both in the family and the classroom.

“Murals tell a story, sometimes more than one. Could there be more than one story in this mural?” Tyler gives us a good deal to observe, a great deal to read, and even more to think about it.

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Author Beverly C. Tyler is the historian for the Three Village Historical Society and conducts walking tours and field trips as Revolutionary War farmer and spy Abraham Woodhull. He has appeared on the History Channel’s Histories Mysteries production Spies of the Revolutionary War and writes a local history column for TBR News Media’s Village Times Herald.

Pick up a signed copy of Setauket and Brookhaven History and meet the author at the upcoming outdoor Holiday Market at the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket on Nov. 28, Dec. 5, 12 and 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The book will also be available at the Three Village Historical Society’s online gift shop at www.TVHS.org in January 2021.