Engine Company, Fire Service Traditions and History, Firefighting, Hazmat

The Artist Behind Fire Engineering’s 1977 Centennial Covers

Mel Bolden, painting of the fire that destroyed White's Opera House in Concord, New Hampshire.

For its centennial year in 1977, Fire Engineering commissioned New Hampshire artist Mel Bolden to produce four covers for the occasion (CLICK HERE for PDF, 4.8 MB).

According the New Hampshire history Web site, SeacoastNH.com, Melvin Reid Bolden was born in 1919 in Baltimore, Maryland, and was educated at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. He worked as a freelance illustrator with Norman Rockwell and others in New York beginning in 1945, and was living in New Hampshire by the late 1950s. He illustrated many well-known publications, and was known as the dean of African-American illustrators. He is also known for “Reach for the Stars,” his mural of Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher-astronaut who perished in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Also active in community affairs, Bolden was the first African-American county committee chairman in the state. Although he passed away in 2000, the artist left vivid memories among those who knew him in New Hampshire.

Battalion Chief Ken Folsom, a member of the of the Concord (NH) Fire Department since 1984, recalled Bolden stopping by the firehouse on occasion. “He would stop and chat with the guys on duty and was always telling stories of his childhood in Baltimore; that’s where he first became familiar with the fire department. During his years in the Concord area he worked with the firefighters on several of his art projects.” Bolden produced an original painting of the November 30,1920 (seen above), fire that destroyed White’s Opera House in Concord, using several Concord firefighters as models. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Thibault.) Prints of the painting were sold to benefit the firefighters’ union at one time, Folsom said. Fire Engineering’s article on the opera house fire is HERE (PDF, 1.8 MB).

A retired Concord Fire Department member, Doug Giles, recalled one day in his rookie year, 1976. “My captain instructed everyone to grab their turnout gear and head out to the front of the old station on Warren Street. Waiting there was a gregarious and animated gentleman with a camera and a paper bag filled with cans of shaving cream. We put our coats, helmets, and boots on as instructed and then watched as this gentleman covered each of us with the shaving cream and had us pull fire hoses back and forth in front of the station. I thought at first that this must be a prank for the rookies or perhaps one of those weird fire buffs I’d heard about. Eventually, I found out that neither of these scenarios was correct and that the gentleman was Mel Bolden, and he was working on a series of cover illustrations for a national fire service publication depicting firefighting in the snow.”

Ironically, fire would destroy Bolden’s historic home in Loudon, which had been a station on the Underground Railroad. Sifting through the ruins after the fire, Giles said, “He looked at the things we found with joy and not with sorrow for their loss. Not once did he stand there in despair.” Already, he was sizing up the barn on the property for his new work and living space.

Bolden would stop by the Concord Monitor office several times a week, with his usual greeting “What’s shakin’?” photographer Ken Williams remembered. Making the rounds of the newsroom, he would quote some news story that grabbed his attention or ticked him off and the conversation was on. “He was also a gold mine of political tips,” according to Williams.

Monitor news artist Charlottte Thibault noted, “Mel possessed the ability to focus all his attention on who he was speaking to so that they felt that they were his very best friend. He knew and was very friendly with the cops and all the firemen, and always knew what was happening before we ever got wind of it at the paper.”

The artist would occasionally use Williams’ family and pets for models. “My sons posed for him in caveman loincloths; I posed as a Roman soldier; and our dog Drummer took center stage on a Monitor insert cover with a Revolutionary War theme.” Here, impromptu models pose for an Old West theme painting. (Photo by Ken Williams/Concord Monitor.)

According to Thibault, when Bolden was the artist at the Monitor, he did a redesign in the 1970s that was very modern and ahead of the time. A good draftsman and a superb painter, Thibault said, he did a lot of research and thoroughly threw himself into any project he was working on. Using brown paper, he would sketch mostly in charcoal, and work out all his compositions, using local people for models, sketching ideas, and taking photos for reference. Thibault painted this portrait just a few months before Bolden’s death.

“The night Bolden died was a pretty somber shift at the firehouse,” Giles recalled. “He was an extraordinary person.”