Work ongoing to conserve fragile history in Old Main

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In the spring of 1949, Stuart Frost was a Penn State undergraduate studying fine arts. At the time, renowned muralist Henry Varnum Poor was continuing the work he began in 1940 to complete the extensive Land-Grant Frescoes in the lobby of Old Main, and Frost was helping him with plastering and trips to the hardware store. Frost had applied plaster one evening and arrived early the next morning to check if the dampness was right for the artist to begin painting. Henry was already there, and what Frost saw looking down at him was his own portrait captured in the face of a man holding the rein on an Angus bull.

The frescoes are full of surprises, and many are coming to light as conservators pore over University archives, repair a half-century of environmental damage and return these works of art to their original condition. Thanks to a generous philanthropic gift from L. James Smauch ’36 Sci, a multi-year project has begun to restore the Old Main lobby, conserve the frescoes and preserve this treasured piece of American art history. John Rita and Ted Holland from Harrisburg-based Albert Michaels Conservation have set up a mobile laboratory in Old Main and are working their way around the lobby, inspecting, cleaning, stabilizing and inpainting (the reinstatement of lost pigment) the frescoes.

Rita and Holland combine archival research with high technology to reveal the process of how Henry created the frescoes and how the years since have damaged them. They are also investigating the walls and ceiling, and how they were finished at the time the frescoes were made.

“Conservators work backwards in a way,” Rita said. “We’re taking off paint and looking through a microscope and trying to get into the mind of an artist and decorator working years before.”

The first panel to undergo conservation was on the southwest corner of the Old Main mezzanine — what has been called the Agriculture wall. The process was slow, painstaking and wonderful.

The fresco cleaning process reveals the authentic colors of the original work, including its brilliant pastel effects. Cleaning pads remove the dull gray film that previously masked the work. Cotton compresses apply solvent that can remove errant drips while preserving the delicate colors.

“The cleaner (Agriculture) got, the more depth it revealed,” Rita recalled. “It shows us why Henry was one of the top artists in the United States at that time. His handling of the surfaces, his dragging of the brush and brush handle through the plaster, creating these marks. It’s a textural tour de force.”

Another part of the process being revealed is the evolution of Poor’s experimentation with the medium of plaster. The image of President Lincoln on the north wall is almost transparent fresco. The white is the plaster itself, and the luminous hues are like watercolors on paper. But nearly a decade passed between the painting of Lincoln and the Agriculture wall. During that time, Poor began adding more sand into his plaster, creating more opaque textures. This ultimately made these frescoes much stronger, but the loss of a single grain of sand now leaves a tiny pockmark of white to be filled.

Rita and Holland are art conservators and forensic scientists. Microscopical examination helps them understand the effects of deterioration and the effectiveness of treatment. Pit lime that has been aged for six years is added to sand to match the original fresco plaster. This is injected with a hypodermic needle, while a chemical stabilizer penetrates to create a stable foundation for further treatment. Finally, with the help of a magnifying headband, Rita or Holland might use a single hair of a watercolor brush to reinstate pigment into a speck of loss.

Rita is quick to point out the historic nature of their work: “Restoring is not remodeling. It’s not like ‘This Old House.’ We’re not picking the colors. We’re using science to reveal what the original colors were.”

That process can have charming results. As the layers of grime came off the Agriculture wall, the snout and ears of a long-lost pig emerged from what previously looked like a dark corner. These intimate details and touches of humor are a recurring theme in the frescoes. The yellow lab under the table on the north wall is Poor’s dog. Leading the seminar is Evan Pugh. Poor also would use people he knew as models, such as Stuart Frost, and he even included himself in the form of an old man.

What surprises still await?

“A truly talented painter can create interesting textures even in dark passages,” Rita said. “As we clean the frescoes, we are uncovering violets, grays and browns. We know that Stuart Frost ground down lapis lazuli for Henry to achieve the blue hues on the Mining wall that are startling even through the dirt. I’m really looking forward to seeing what else is there.” That wall, which has experienced the most deterioration, will go under the microscope in 2013.

To witness the conservation process in person and to see the brilliant contrast of a conserved panel, be sure to visit the Old Main lobby. For more information and history about the Land-Grant Frescoes visit www.psu.edu/ur/about/frescoes.

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Last Updated November 21, 2012