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Published: Monday, 3/1/2010

Amateur sleuth uncovers history of mystery painting

IN Bowling Green they call it the painting nobody wanted. In Doylestown, Wis., thanks to the detective work of a Bowling Green city parks naturalist, they're happy to get it back.

The painting is a work of abstract expressionism by Clare Ferriter. How it got from Washington to Bowling Green and finally to Doylestown is a testament to the determination and Internet skills of Chris Gajewicz, who's been coordinator of natural resources for the Bowling Green Parks and Recreation Department for 10 years.

The mystery began last fall when a Bowling Green law office decided that the painting, which had hung on its walls for years, no longer fit the dcor. The firm offered it to the parks department for a wine and cheese fund-raiser that included a silent auction.

It was a nice gesture, but there was a problem. Nobody bid on it. Mr. Gajewicz was not especially surprised, since abstract works don't appeal to everyone, but he couldn't bring himself to discard it.

"I knew that somebody somewhere wanted it," he explains.

He began his search with his best clue: the artist's name on the painting. He learned on the Internet that Clare Ferriter was indeed an artist of some renown. When she died in 1994 at the age of 81, she left behind a substantial body of work and was a contemporary of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and Mark Rothko, other notables in the abstract expressionism movement.

Mr. Gajewicz also discovered that Clare Ferriter had worked for the Works Progress Administration as an artist depicting life in America in the 1930s and 1940s. But she had been dead for 15 years. Where were her relatives, he wondered. How would he find her family?

Facebook provided the answer. The naturalist turned sleuth located a grand-niece of Clare. She directed him to her uncle, George Ferriter, who it turns out is a collector of Clare's work and has been trying to acquire pieces that have been unaccounted for.

Over time the details of the painting's acquisition by the Hanna law offices had retreated into the past. And a key player, attorney Shad Hanna, died in a traffic accident in 2001.

Mr. Ferriter was able to fill in the blanks for Mr. Gajewicz. Clare Ferriter had met Shad Hanna when he was a law student at American University in the 1960s and dated the artist's daughter.

Apparently he made quite an impression. Clare told young Mr. Hanna he could have his pick of her paintings as a gift. He chose "Warriors." Ultimately it ended up on his law office wall - and finally, at a parks and recreation silent auction.

Pinpointing the year "Warriors" was painted has proven elusive. Mr. Gajewicz deduces that it was early in the 1960s because he found an old address label on the back of the painting that included a ZIP Code. The postal service didn't inaugurate ZIP Codes until 1963.

Mr. Ferriter was significantly more interested in the painting than the patrons of the art auction.

When Mr. Gajewicz told him the auction had been a fund-raiser to benefit the Save the Woods campaign - a project to acquire and protect parkland in Bowling Green - he agreed to pay $450 for his aunt's work of art.

"When Chris described that the auction was being held for establishment of the nature preserve, I quickly realized that I should try to be generous," he says. "While my Aunt Clare's paintings are not avidly collected - though they should be - I was as forthcoming as I could be. Aunt Clare no doubt would be pleased with the end use."

Mr. Gajewicz and his wife were planning a trip to western Michigan over the New Year's holiday. So they met Mr. Ferriter in Mt. Prospect, Ill., just north of Chicago, and the painting was back in the Ferriter family's hands. No shipping charges necessary.

Mr. Gajewicz describes his journey of exploration as an "adventure." But, he adds: "Ten years ago, I never could have found Mr. Ferriter. The Internet and Facebook made it happen."

If this guy weren't so good at his day job, he could probably land employment with the Bowling Green Police Department. Just call him Sherlock.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at:

twalton@theblade.com



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