The Big Picture

by Annie Stoltie | June 2021

photograph by Nancie Battaglia

Artist Arto Monaco’s Au Sable Forks time capsule

ehind a rack of reds
at Adirondack Mountain Spirits in Au Sable Forks is a mural that spreads across most of a wall. Its paint is cracked and peeling, coated in layers of cigarette smoke and polyurethane and, after 81 years, dulled by the sun that streams in through the windows. To some, this picture might be easily overlooked—a quirky bit of art in an unlikely place. But to locals this mural, painted by artist Arto Monaco, is a treasure.

Beginning in the 1920s, Arto’s dad, Louis, ran Monaco’s, an Italian restaurant in Upper Jay. While dining there, famed illustrator Rockwell Kent, who lived in Au Sable Forks, saw some of young Arto’s artwork and recognized his natural talent. Kent mentored Arto and encouraged him to study at New York City’s Pratt Institute, launching him to the West Coast to work as a set artist for MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount and Disney, with side projects for celebrities such as Ira Gershwin, Fanny Brice and Dorothy Parker.        

But the story goes that in 1940, a restless Arto, the North Country forever in his heart, took a drive to clear his head. He didn’t take his foot off the gas until he reached the Adirondacks. 

It was during this time that he painted the mural on the Sheetrock at Jack Fuelner’s Village Inn in Au Sable. Despite a looming Whiteface Mountain, the scene was supposedly inspired by one of Fuelner’s Canadian hunting trips, but featured folks from around town. Fuelner appears in a canoe behind a stereotypical depiction of a Native American guide; Rockwell Kent, the small figure in white in the background, paints; in front, with pants rolled up, are optometrist Speen Mc­Kenzie and attorney Dan Manning Sr.; and others from the community are scattered across a Technicolor landscape—the owner of Au Sable’s theater, a hardware salesman, a banker and even Arto himself, in red long johns leaning over a wash basin.

Inn patrons knew the backstory of every person in the painting, and that continued through the decades, after Fuelner sold the tavern to Art and Ida Douglas, who operated it as Art’s Village Inn. But after Art died in 1972 and the mill that powered the hamlet’s economy shuttered, the restaurant closed. In 1983 Art’s grandson Kevin Douglas bought the building, becoming keeper of Arto Monaco’s Au Sable Forks time capsule.

Kevin, now a retired sergeant from the Department of Corrections, grew up at the Village Inn: His grandparents posted his birth announcement in its front window. He toddled there, ate hamburgers with friends in the booths beneath the mural, stocked coolers and delivered lunches. Kevin is emotionally connected, but the building is still an investment—he’s leased it as office and studio space and currently, to Joe and Dale Richards, who operate their liquor and wine store where the bar and booths once stood. The deal is that nobody touches the mural.    

In 2009, Essex-based art conservator Emily Phillips assessed that it would take thousands of dollars to bring the mural back to its original condition. But her take on its value goes beyond money. “Being Arto Monaco and being in Au Sable and all these local depictions and their relationship to the community—I don’t even think I could put into words how rare and significant this is.”

At Adirondack Mountain Spirits, Joe Richards understands the importance of what’s on the wall. In the 1960s he worked for Arto at his Land of Makebelieve theme park in Upper Jay, long since erased by Ausable River floods. Customers—many of whom knew the artist, who passed away in 2003, at age 90—often share their Arto memories. Just as Joe says this, Theron Snow, a grandson of Tim Snow Sr., the character in the painting that’s lugging an armload of firewood and wearing his Village Inn bartender apron, walks into the store. “He was the last living person in the mural,” says Theron, pointing at his grandfather. “He had some stories.”

And it’s up to us to keep telling them, and to look to that scene from so many years ago when Arto immortalized the people around town. Kevin sees it as his duty to protect the mural, because “it’s a part of who we are.”

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