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Unveiling the Mystery of the Murals in the Deserted Village

de-la-selva-cover-photoLong before critics would take note of his stunning folk art, Nicaraguan artist Roberto de la Selva showed up at a small enclave in the Watchung mountains.

It was 1927 and de la Selva, an associate of the artist Diego Rivera, ended up painting murals on the walls of one of the homes with scenes that would be precursors to his later wood carvings.

This Sunday, at Masker’s Barn in the Deserted Village of Feltville, there will be a special program focusing on de la Selva’s work and the need to restore the house that contains his murals.

The panel discussion, which gets underway at 1 p.m., will include Ron Burkard, an Oklahoma resident and scholar and collector of de la Selva art; Priscilla Hayes, a Deserted Village historian; Dr. Elizabeth Seaman, whose high school class created digital restorations of the murals; and Daniel Bernier, resident caretaker of the Deserted Village and administrator of its restoration.

Although the house is closed to the public, poster-size photographs of the murals will be on display at the barn.

“While Four Centuries at the Deserted Village is a lot of fun, with the hayrides, tours, the colonial children’s games and other activities, we try to strike that balance and explore some aspect of the Village’s and area’s history,” said Union County Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski.

Past forums have included authors, historians and archeologists, who shared their research with visitors on the multiple chapters in history that have played out in the small enclave above the Blue Brook, from its colonial beginnings as farming country to a resort community.

“We never had the opportunity before to explore de la Selva’s life, which is what makes this year’s forum so unique,” Kowalski said. “And hopefully, it will help spur further efforts to save and restore his murals.”

In the late 1920s, several homes in the village were owned by Edward Grassmann, a surveyor and engineer from Elizabeth.

Grassmann arranged for de la Selva to spend his summer in House #7, where he painted about a dozen murals directly on the plaster walls throughout the first floor of the house.  The murals were covered up with wallpaper within five years, and were not uncovered until 1975.

Since that time, the vacancy of that house, lack of environmental controls, and a leaky roof led to significant deterioration of many of the murals.

The de la Selva murals have attracted the attention art scholars and were included earlier this year in an exhibition of de la Selva’s art in San Antonio, Texas. Known more as a sculptor, his murals at the Deserted Village are the only murals that he is known to have painted.

In 2013, House #7 was cited by Preservation New Jersey as one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey.  PNJ’s listing was intended not only to show the deterioration of the murals, but also to spotlight the need for funding to assist the County in its historic preservation efforts.

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