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K-State Today

June 2, 2011

From the Great Depression to a great restoration: project adds new life to historic Overmyer murals

Submitted by Julie Fosberg

It started with a pumpkin that looked flat and not quite the right color. It ends with a Cinderella-like transformation, returning this pumpkin and four special artworks at Kansas State University to their original glory.

The restoration of K-State's historic David Hicks Overmyer murals in the Reading Room at Hale Library was recently completed. Overmyer was a noted regional artist who painted the murals in 1934 through a grant from the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, a Depression-era program. The murals depict the university's four colleges at the time, all of which were very much in keeping with K-State's land-grant mission: "Agriculture"; "Mechanics," for engineering and industry; "Arts"; and "Home," for home economics.

Age, water damage and other issues had left the murals in need of special care. The pumpkin in "Agriculture" especially stood out, according to Roberta Johnson, director of financial services and facilities for the K-State Libraries. She noticed that its color seemed inconsistent with the other colors in the painting and that it had no dimension, compared to other parts of the murals.

Because of the murals' historical significance, Lori Goetsch, dean of K-State Libraries, knew something had to be done.

"They are a piece of heritage: the heritage of Depression-era art and what they represent about K-State's history and about the history of the land-grant university," she said.

The Friends of the K-State Libraries agreed to pay for the bulk of the restoration cost. "I have such extreme appreciation for this group," Goetsch said. "They have taken this on financially as a multiyear project, and we would not be where we are today without the Friends."

Staff at K-State's Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art recommended contacting Mary Schafer, assistant paintings conservator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., about doing the restoration.

Schafer and her crew have worked on the murals for two weeks at a time for the last four years. She's used her vacation time from the museum for the project.

"Mary's been a great partner with us," Goetsch said. "She's done a wonderful job, and she's taught us a lot about the murals and the process of restoring them."

The painstaking work included analyzing the damage and cleaning to remove varnish and nonoriginal paint -- applied during a previous touch-up of "Agriculture" and "Arts" -- as well as toning some paint loss.

Schafer said the scale of the project was one of her biggest challenges. She's used to working on paintings on canvas, not works on a long plaster wall that she had to use scaffolding to reach.

The murals were touched up in 1996 but the paint used for the job wasn't right, leaving the pumpkin and other parts of the mural not quite as Overmyer had originally painted them. Using solvents provided by the K-State chemistry department, Schafer and her team removed the offending paint while being careful not to harm the original oil paint.

"The next conservator who treats these works will be able to remove the paint we used with a solvent that has very little effect on oil paint," she said. "I hope that these murals won't have to be touched for another 30 or more years."

Water damage has been a recurring problem with the murals. Just when Schafer was nearly finished with the project, a pipe burst at the library earlier this year and caused water damage to one of the murals. But Goetsch has taken steps to give them more protection. Thanks to federal stimulus funds, the entire library is getting a new roof. K-State's Division of Facilities also built a water diversion system over the murals.

"They really fabricated it to look like it's always been here and did a beautiful job," Goetsch said.

Schafer said the project has revealed some of Overmyer's painting techniques and uncovered some details that not many people notice when viewing the murals from the ground.

"The original paint has become more transparent over time, making some of the grid lines Overmyer used to create his painting more visible," she said. "They tell you a little bit about how he started painting the murals. He used the grid to transfer a composition from a sketch to the wall. In this way he was able to go from something small to something much larger."

Schafer made other discoveries about the mural by getting up close: the grid lines were drawn with black charcoal; they're most noticeable in "Arts"; and Overmyer added charcoal lines as detail on top of the paint, such as on the female's dress in "Home."

While Schafer doesn't favor one mural over the other -- "I treat these murals not as my work, but as Overmyer's," she said -- she does have some favorite parts, including the pumpkin in "Agriculture."

"That pumpkin was once covered with a very flat bright orange paint that shouldn't be there. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to remove it and see the original paint. We now see Overmyer’s work -- and the pumpkin has much more dimension," she said. "My other favorite parts include some of the faces, the flowers and the very art deco styles in the murals."

The murals -- and the Reading Room, which is in the first part of the library built in 1927 -- are great favorites with K-State alumni and students, Goetsch said.

"Our students today call it the Harry Potter room. They think it sort of looks like the big dining hall in the Harry Potter movies," she said. "It's traditionally a quiet study area. Students like to come here and we get comments from them like, 'It just makes me feel smarter to be in this room that looks like an old library.'"