Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Students work to restore historic mural

students restoring mural

Seniors Nicole Saint (left) and Stefani Schulte help restore a mural in Little Theatre. PHOTO BY: Richard Chapman.

Perched on a second-hand construction scaffold 20 feet above the stage in the Little Theatre in Margery Reed Hall are two DU seniors having the time of their lives.

One sits on a thick pillow, legs dangling. Both are hunched over, staring intently at the proscenium arch, a brick and plaster wall that frames the space where the actors perform.

The students hold cotton swabs and Exacto knives fitted with scalpel blades. Carefully, they daub the wall with ammonia and distilled water. The liquid makes the thick, dark surface layers of paint swell so the students can scrape it off. The paint they’re removing is gunk covering a colorful John Thompson mural that hasn’t been seen since 1931.

“At first it took me about four hours to do six square inches,” says senior pre-art conservation major Stefani Schulte. Nearly 10 weeks into the restoration, the work is going faster, she says — seven square inches in four hours.

Although the mural is covered by five or more layers, the students are removing only the top few. They won’t touch the under-layers until a chemical analysis arrives from a lab at the University of Delaware, one of the foremost art restoration programs in the U.S. That report will indicate the precise chemical “cocktail” for removing the remaining paint without damaging the mural.

It’s tedious, backbreaking, detailed work — like Egyptologists excavating a lost tomb. Daubing, scraping. Painstakingly revealing brightly colored characters drawn from the plays of Shakespeare.

Professional art conservationist Lisa Capano, who is supervising the restoration, says that bringing the mural back to the way it was painted in 1929 could take as long as two years. But the students don’t care. They’re restoring real art. Putting into practice the skills they wouldn’t be able to use without traveling to special programs in Italy. Now they have a real-world experience without leaving DU.

“I feel like Indiana Jones,” Schulte says.

Senior Nicole Saint is a bit less theatrical.

“It’s nice to finally see why we’re killing ourselves with art and chemistry classes,” she says.

Capano is ready to buy Indiana Jones-style fedoras for both students, grateful for the help and the Partners in Scholarship funds that supported it.

“They’re extremely passionate about the work,” Capano says. “They listen, follow instructions, ask intelligent questions. They’re precise, hard-working – and they haven’t made any mistakes!”

It hasn’t been easy. The students have coped with wrist injuries, back strains and chemical burns to their hands. They’ve endured sticky summer heat, strange noises, fear of heights and the ghost reputed to haunt Margery Reed Hall.

“I’ve seen some stuff out of the corner of my eye — a person standing, watching us,” Schulte says. “I personally think it’s John Thompson because his mural was covered over two years after it was painted and he’s mad.

“I’d be mad, too.”

Thompson died in 1945 but his works still command six-figure prices. He was instrumental in creating the DU art school, where he taught drawing and painting. Regarded as the “dean” of Colorado painters, Thompson painted murals in a number of buildings in Denver, including the Colorado Business Bank, the Brown Palace Hotel and the Little Theatre at DU.

The bank mural is still viewable, but the one at the Brown Palace was destroyed during a renovation. The mural in Little Theatre was obliterated in 1931 when Walter Sinclair, DU’s theater director, decided he didn’t like it. Thompson was outraged, but powerless to interfere. Once covered, the mural was forgotten until inquiries by the DU newspaper The Source led to its rediscovery earlier this year. 

“We’re seeing something that probably nobody alive has seen or at the very least remembers,” Schulte says. “It’s such a complex mural and it’s so beautiful. I love that I’m one of the first people to see it.”

Restoration will continue until classes begin Sept. 10, then yield to theater schedules, diminished internship hours, uncertain funding and plans to convert the theater into a lecture hall for the Daniels School of Business. Schulte and Saint say they hope to continue working on the project until they graduate next May. 

“The work’s been really tedious,” Schulte says. “But it’s fun.”

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