Arts and Culture

Conservators show off progress of mural

Scores of art lovers got a pleasant visual awakening April 6 when progress was unveiled on the restoration of a mural significant to the history of the University of Denver and Colorado art.

For the past year, conservators have been painstakingly exposing the huge mural, which was painted onto the proscenium arch of the Little Theatre in Margery Reed Hall in 1929, then painted over with thick, dark paint in 1931. The artist, John Edward Thompson, considered the act “vandalism.”

But his indignation was brushed aside, and once the mural was covered, it was ignored and eventually forgotten until being rediscovered in 2007.

Conservators showed off their accomplishments, announcing they are about 60 percent through the cleaning phase in their effort to remove multiple layers of dark paint.

“It really is painstakingly slow,” said Stefani Schulte, a DU art conservation senior, who with fellow senior Nicole Saint has been working to restore the mural for the last year. Directed by professional conservator Lisa Capano, the team is applying solvents, gels and cleaning agents and carefully scraping away paint layers with cotton swabs and scalpels to reveal the underlying art.

“Over 70 years, chemistry has taken its toll,” Capano told about 60 people at the team’s first public progress report. “People leaning against it. The stage lights baking these layers of paint over the years.”

And that doesn’t count damage.

“We’ve found staple holes, nail holes, drill holes,” Saint said. “Two big door holes were knocked through on each side.”

All that damage has to be carefully repaired while the paint removal sets the stage for detailed restoration. Conservators hope to eventually restore missing elements, strengthen the underlying plaster, clean and protect the painted surface, and re-gild and repaint portions.

“Thompson could not be more pleased than to know that students were restoring the work he did,” said art historian Deborah Wadsworth.

She called Thompson a “very fine easel painter,” a cosmopolitan, urbane gentleman who studied in Europe and enjoyed success there before bringing “international modernism to Colorado painting.”

The reaction was extreme, Wadsworth said. In 1919, Thompson exhibited a “very pleasant, lovely painting” titled Organization of Rocks and Trees, but “people became hysterical.”

“Editorials in The Denver Post accused Thompson of being a Bolshevist, a disciple of Lenin and Trotsky and an anarchist at a time when that was a terrible thing to call someone.”

Thompson pressed on, subsequently becoming a member of the DU art faculty and teaching until his death in 1945. He also produced professional works, including murals at the Colorado Business Bank, St. Martin’s Chapel and the Brown Palace Hotel.

“In a field where ego often trumps mentoring, Thompson was an exception,” Wadsworth said. “He was always supportive and always encouraging to students.”

The restoration work is being funded by the Daniels College of Business as part of plans to convert the theater into a lecture auditorium for the business school.

“Daniels has been very helpful in keeping this project moving forward, as has the theater department,” said Dan Jacobs, curator of University Art Collections and overall director of the mural conservation project. “This has truly been a collaborative project at DU.”

Read past mural articles:
Historic mural hidden in Margery Reed Hall
Restoration an option for DU’s Thompson mural
Students work to restore historic mural

[Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, Dan Jacobs’ title was inadvertently omitted.]

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