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Muralist Kenah leaves legacy as painter, illustrator, woodworker

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

By Shelby Miller Ruch

To many in his native Beaver County, Richard Hay Kenah's artistic achievements remain as obscure as the murals he painted for Ambridge High School.

According to family members, Kenah was born in New Brighton in 1907 and died in 1982.

He was a prolific and gifted painter, illustrator and woodworker. While working for federal New Deal agencies during the 1930s and 1940s, he created the Ambridge murals and painted historical motifs on the walls of three post offices.

Later, he found employment with the Public Works Administration in Washington, D.C. During World War II, he worked for the Army Quartermaster Corps and then became chief illustrator for the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was in charge of the exhibit division for many years.

Kenah left a legacy of artwork ranging from public building murals to portraits of family and friends. Educated in New Brighton public schools, at Antioch College in Ohio and the Art Institute of Chicago, he had trouble finding work during the Great Depression.

Then he received a government commission to create the Ambridge panels depicting high points in Beaver County history.

His niece, Alice Hay Derryberry, of Vancouver, Wash., said Kenah built a studio on his parents' farm on Dutch Ridge Road behind Beaver Falls.

She said the studio had large windows and large, moveable, slanted boards to hold the murals so that he could get additional perspective when he needed it.

Kenah's son and daughter-in-law, Christopher and Katharine Kenah, of Granville, Ohio, have many of the artist's paintings and sketches, including a watercolor of his Beaver County studio.

"Dad completed three post office murals: one in Bridgeport, Ohio, across the river from Wheeling; one in Bluefield, W.Va., built around a coal mining theme, and one in Louisburg, N.C., that focuses on a tobacco auction," Christopher Kenah said.

"This sketch/painting is in the Smithsonian Institution collection."

Christopher Kenah recalled his father describing his duties for the Public Works Administration in Washington, D.C., including escorting first lady Eleanor Roosevelt around the facility.

"When the war started in 1941, the Army would not take him, so he worked for the Army Quartermaster Corps using his art in exhibits and displays of military hardware," Kenah said. "After the war, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in the exhibits unit, which he built up over time.

His Distinguished Service Award, received in 1967 from the Interior Department, emphasized his ability to understand the science and consequently, display the scientific information clearly."

Katharine Kenah described her father-in-law as "very quiet, humble, amazingly observant.

He said being an artist is being an observer. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He just loved being outdoors and looking at everything in unbelievable detail."

Shelby Miller Ruch is a freelance writer.

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