Artist helps rededicate 50-year-old Harford painting at its new home in Street

The original painting that became the basis for the annual Harford County Farm Fair Pulling Award — done 50 years ago by Baltimore artist Joseph Sheppard, but in and out of storage in recent years — was rededicated this week at its new, and permanent, home at the Harford County Agricultural Center in Darlington.

Sheppard, who will be 88 in December, was on hand to celebrate the rededication Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m so pleased this painting is here because many I did for Equitable are no longer in existence,” the artist said.

He admitted was nervous about seeing a painting he did a half century ago.

“I didn’t know how I would face it when I came in. Am I going to like it? Am I going to hate it?” he said. “I think it’s pretty good.”

Sheppard was commissioned 50 years ago by the chairman and the CEO of what was then known as Equitable Trust Bank to paint local scenes for all of its branches, including the one at the corner of Main Street and Baltimore Pike in downtown Bel Air.

“They wanted to preserve the farming lifestyle in Harford County,” Phil Wohlfort, who was with Equitable Bank for many years, said Monday.

The 7-by-7-foot painting was in his office and “took up pretty much the entire wall,” Wohlfort said. “I loved the painting, it captured a really special part of Harford’s history.”

The painting depicts local farmers with their prized horses competing in team pulls on the track of the “old Harford County Fair,” at what is now Harford Mall. Spectators cheer them on from the huge grandstand, while others ride the Ferris wheel and check out the many tents with food and exhibits.

Michael Klein, of the Klein’s ShopRite family, was in Wohlfort’s office one day and told Wohlfort that the artist was highly regarded and the painting likely had a substantial value.

Sheppard’s works in painting and sculpture have won numerous awards and are featured in nearly two dozen museums and collections worldwide. Klein has several of the artist pieces in his home.

Sheppard’s painting was appraised and Wohlfort learned it was “quite valuable,” but by then Equitable had been bought by another bank and his office was moving across Main Street, where there was not one wall in the building to accommodate Sheppard’s painting.

Reluctantly, Wohlfort said, the painting went into storage while bank officials discussed what to do with it.

“A number of people felt strongly that it should be in a place to be enjoyed by Harford County residents and really share this piece of Harford County history with everyone,” he said.

And in 1994, what had become Nationsbank donated the painting to Harford County, whose county executive was Eileen Rehrmann, with a ceremony at the Farm Fair pulling arena, now at the county equestrian center on Tollgate Road in Bel Air.

“The reason we did that back then was to get it to a place where it could truly celebrate Harford County heritage and Farm Fair history,” Wohlfort said. “We’re excited to see it at the Ag Center, that’s what this place is all about.”

Because there was nowhere large enough to accommodate the painting, it was put in storage again until Jim Fielder, then the director of economic development for the county, said he wanted it displayed where people could see it, according to Alice Archer, secretary board of directors of the Harford County Farm Bureau and the Farm Fair.

The painting was eventually hung in the lobby of 220 S. Main St., which had become the county administration building after Equitable moved across the street and the county bought the older building in the early 1980s.

But it went back in storage when the county remodeled the building a few years ago to create the permit center on the first floor.

“The goal was always to get it here, so that it could be again seen by the people,” Archer said.

“Here” is the Ag Center on Route 1, which then didn’t exist, though the concept of one had been discussed.

When the painting was first donated, the Farm Fair’s board members wanted to create an award to honor a top volunteer for the year, Archer said.

The “Pulling Award” would be presented to a volunteer “chosen for his or her efforts in ‘pulling for the team’ that successfully fulfills the mission of the Farm Fair and provides this celebration of Harford County’s agricultural heritage and the farming community,” Archer said. The award included a reproduction of Sheppard’s painting.

Some of the previous Pulling Award winners attended Monday’s rededication to have Sheppard sign their prints, including Elke Neuburger (1997), Amy McClaskey (2007) and Margaret Scarborough (2010), as well as Archer (2006).

A plaque listing all the Pulling Award winners will be hung next to Sheppard’s original, Archer said.

Of all the paintings Sheppard did for Equitable Trust, he only knows what happened to three of them, he said.

One that he did for a branch in Baltimore was thrown in the garbage when the building was torn down, Sheppard said. One of the people working on the site pulled it out of the trash and brought it to his studio to have it repaired, but when Sheppard told him how much it would cost, the person sold it. The eventual purchaser also brought it to Sheppard and asked him to repair it, which he did.

A third painting is at Nationsbank on Charles Street in Baltimore, after hanging for years in an Equitable branch at North Avenue and Charles Street, he said.

A new painting Sheppard recently finished will be unveiled Jan. 11 at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, depicting the late Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer “in a Gay ’90s bathing suit and straw hat getting into a pool with the seals,” he said.

Sheppard, who with his wife, Rita St. Clair, lives half the year in Italy and the other half in Baltimore, thanked the county officials and others gathered Tuesday for preserving his work.

“Thank you again for saving a piece of art, especially mine,” Sheppard said.

County Executive Barry Glassman thanked Sheppard for attending Tuesday’s rededication.

When Sheppard painted the fair piece, the ag center was still a long way off dream, Glassman, who is only six years older than the painting, said.

“It was a twinkle in our eyes to have this [center], and I think the painting kind of found its home,” he said, pointing out the building is used by adults, youth and senior citizens.

“To have those generations come in, see the painting and learn its history I think is good,” Glassman said. “It will have many, many admirers.”

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