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Texas Southern University Begins Multi-Year Project to Restore Historic Murals

Restored Kermit Oliver

In a major commitment to preserve the cultural legacy of 128 university murals painted by Texas Southern University art students that adorn the walls of Texas Southern University’s Hannah Hall, the TSU administration, led by University President, Dr. John M. Rudley, and College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences Dean, Dr. Danille Taylor, implemented plans to restore the historic works of art.

Inspired by the murals of Charles White and Diego Rivera, Dr. John T. Biggers – world renowned artist and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern, instituted the program of mural painting for art majors soon after he arrived on the campus. The result is a visual narrative of African American culture with themes ranging from Reconstruction and the early development of Historically Black Colleges, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the impact of global culture and migration on the world’s youth.

Texas Southern is the only university in the country to have such a comprehensive collection of historic murals that were all created by students. Over time, however, the murals began to lose their luster through the fading and chipping of paint due in part to the materials that the students had available to them at the time.

“As the murals are gradually being restored, the excitement in Hannah Hall has been building as the TSU family observes the careful work of these professionals as they restore a valuable part of TSU’s history,” said Taylor.

With significant funding from the Brown Foundation, the restoration of nine murals has begun under the expertise of Evergreene Architectural Arts of New York City. The Evergreene conservation team, led by conservator Kumiko Hisano, is working on the third floor of Hannah Hall, bringing the murals back to their original glory through a process of stabilization of damaged areas, careful cleaning and the addition of protective varnishing, and final restoration of the surface and of painted areas.

Known for its restoration of the famous Harlem Hospital murals in New York, as well as significant conservation projects in Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and the Cathedral of Christ the Light, the Evergreene team plans to have the first nine murals completely restored by December 21. On a recent tour of the murals and the conservation process, Brown Foundation grants officer Katy Hays stated, “What a legacy for the students and the community. These works are truly jewels and the university should be proud of its role in preserving these treasures.”

As an artist and educator, Dr. Biggers regarded his student mural project as one of his most significant achievements. During his thirty-six year tenure at Texas Southern, Dr. Biggers created three murals himself for the university, two of which have been fully restored. His earliest mural Web of Life, now housed in the University Museum, was restored by the conservation department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1994 at the time of the national Biggers retrospective organized and curated by Dr. Alvia Wardlaw. Family Unity, the second mural created by Biggers and located in the Sterling Student Life Center, is the largest of the fourteen murals that he painted in his lifetime. This mural was fully restored by Evergreen in early 2012 with funds provided by President Rudley. The first completely restored mural during this phase of the project is by world-renowned artist Kermit Oliver, painted when he was an undergraduate art major at Texas Southern.

Early attention to the conservation of the TSU murals was initiated by Dr. Sarah Trotty, current Interim Chair of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts, and the Mural Conservation Committee. In 1999, Dr. Trotty received a University Seed Grant to research and photograph the murals and interview the artists who had completed murals as part of their undergraduate art program.

Dean Danille Taylor developed the blueprint for pursuing both funding and professional conservation expertise for the murals, and created a Mural Task Force composed of area arts and conservation experts and major patrons of the arts. The initial professional conservation assessment of the murals was provided by Conservator Richard Haskell of California in 2011. During that process, all murals were photographed and a conservation assessment was made of the treatment required for each mural with the assistance of University Museum registrar Monica Vidal. The funding of this phase of assessment and cataloguing was provided through university administrative funds as well as a Collections Management grant awarded to the University Museum from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. With this full documentation, Evergreene was able to begin its work in restoring the first group of murals selected according to the severity of damage and historic importance.

Senior art major LaStarsha McGarity is assisting the Evergreene team in redeveloping the surface texture on the murals. This unique hands-on opportunity provides her with important experience as she pursues a career in art conservation.

“As a proud Texas Southern University student, I was overjoyed when the professionals from Evergreene Architectural Arts began doing preservation work on the University’s historic murals in the Sterling Student Life Center and Hannah Hall,” said McGarity. “Considering that art conservation is the field I have chosen to dedicate myself to, I jumped at the chance to simply observe the process and ask as many questions as I could. To my delight, Kumiko “Kumi” Hisano and her associates have been allowing me to aid in their process and touch an important part my HBCU’s history. They have guided me through every step of the process and allowed me to complete the tasks at each point, from cleaning the paintings to reapplying texture to the wall. This experience is invaluable and I am deeply indebted to the Mural Preservation Committee and the employees of Evergreene Architectural Arts.”

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