This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Re-evaluation of 1984 Preservation Decisions for the African House Murals by Clementine Hunter
In 1984 as an Associate Conservator at Perry Huston and Associates in Fort Worth, Texas, Michael Swicklik consulted on the best method of preserving Clementine Hunter’s murals installed in Africa House on the Melrose
Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana. By 1984, the Hunter murals, which were executed in 1955 and depicted scenes of Cane River plantation life, were exhibiting some condition problems. After discussions with those interested in the mural’s preservation, including a consulting architectural firm, a proposal for the treatment of the murals and a plan for their long- term preservation were devised and carried out. This talk discusses those efforts in light of a recent visit to the murals to evaluate how they have faired over the past 28 years.
Jason Church: Michael Swicklik, Senior Paintings Conservativer of the National Gallery of Art, and Michael is going to talk about his revisit and current visit to the African House Murals at Melrose.
Michael Swicklik: Thanks for inviting me Jason, it’s been a great amount of fun being here for the last couple of days, and I just want to say right at the start, some of this is going to be review, but we’ll just go with it anyway.
In 1984, as an associate conservator at Perry Houston & Associates in Fort Worth, Texas, I was asked to consult on the best method of preserving Clementine Hunter’s murals, installed in the African House on the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches. Melrose Plantation is a national historical landmark now owned and run by the Association for Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. It is one of the largest plantations in the United States built by and for free blacks. One of the other buildings on the plantation, in addition to the big house I showed on the first slide, is the African house. This was built as a store house for food. African House is reminiscent of thatched huts found in the Congo, although it is constructed of a lower story of mud brick and an upper story of hand hewn cypress. African House is the only structure of its type dating back to the colonial times that still exists in the United States. It is on the walls of the upper story that the murals by Clementine Hunter are installed.
Clementine Hunter was born on Melrose Plantation around 1887. She began painting while in her fifties in a self-taught folk-art style with artist materials that had been left behind by a visiting artist. She painted from memory scenes of plantation life that included such activities as marriages and funerals, picking cotton, and washing clothes. Some of the best known of Hunter’s works are the murals in African House, which were completed in 1955 and depicts scenes of Cane River Plantation life.
By 1984 the Hunter murals were exhibiting some condition problems. It is on the points of exactly who, other than Tommy, was responsible for calling in Perry Houston & Associates at Fort Worth, with whom I met after the consultation was assigned to me as an associate conservator, and with whom I worked in the Natchitoches in 1983-1984, that my memory gets fuzzy. Unfortunately, I have no notes on these details. However, I do remember that the individuals involved were deeply committed to the preservation of the murals, intense in their determination to find the right solution, and a pleasure to work with throughout the project. After discussions with those interested in the murals preservation, including a consulting architectural firm, a proposal for the treatment for the murals and a plan for their long term preservation was devised and carried out. This talk discovered those efforts in light of a recent visit to the murals, to evaluate how they have fared over the past 28 years. It is really this rare chance to reevaluate conservation choices made many years before, that is the subject of this talk.
My first evaluation of the Melrose Murals occurred in the summer of 1983. The eight largest murals were executed with what appeared to be oil paint on three and a half by six foot, three ply, one-quarter inch thick plywood panels. One other painting was similar in every way but only measured two and a half by three and a half feet. These panels were attached to the walls by the use of a wooden riveted framework that could be removed from the walls by pulling the nails from this framing. Even after hanging in the non-climate controlled building, with non-glazed windows for nearly 30 years, the panels supports were still in a fairly good state of preservation. There was only slight warping due to their constraint of the framing during the humidity cycles and the uneven humidity absorption between the front and the rear of the panels, the front of the panels that were painted and the reverse of the panels that were uncoated. In general, the paint on the panel supports was well preserved, although all areas of the panel showed a little bit of loose paint, there is relatively few areas of severe paint insecurity. In these areas the loss seemed to result from some trauma to the painting, such as hard blows to their surface or extreme dampness, rather than from simple environmental deterioration. The surface of the painting was less well preserved than the paint or its support. The paintings had a streaky appearance from two factors. In some limited places, water had run over the paintings from leaks in the roof above them. When the water evaporated, it left tide lines, drip marks, and streaks. Also, all of the murals at some point had been unevenly coated with a varnish that was not meant for artworks. The varnish had saturated the lean paint film in the areas where it was applied, but had left uncoated areas unsaturated. To add to the streaky appearance, the varnish had discolored, darkening the coated areas.
Given this evaluation of the condition of the paintings, it was relatively straightforward to devise a treatment program for the murals. First, they would be removed from the walls by pulling the nails from the wooden framework. Next, all of the loosened flaking paint would be re-adhered to the support with an appropriate consolidant. The reverse of the panels would be sealed with a varnish that could protect them from moisture penetration through the walls and also prevent the unequal expansion of the front and reverse of the panels. At this stage the paintings would be cleaned as much as possible. For the most part, only grime accumulations were removable. Unfortunately, the unevenly applied varnish layer on the paintings was absolutely insoluble, and could not be removed. After cleaning, any paint loss that could be in-painted would be filled in. Finally, the paintings would be varnished to protect the part of the paint surface that had not yet been varnished, and also to saturate those unvarnished areas so as to help alleviate the streakiness.
The goal of this initial consultation was not simply to formulate a treatment plan for the murals, but also to come up with a plan for their long-term preservation. The Preservation Architecture firm of McNaughton & Associates was brought in from New Orleans to help with this part of the evaluation. Even after the paintings were properly conserved, the fact remained that they were still housed in a non-climate controlled environment open to the elements in many ways. In light of this situation, many possibilities for controlling the environment in which the murals were housed were discussed. Initially, the conversation concentrated on whether African House could be weather proofed by the addition of glazing the windows and by adding insulation and a heating system. Although this was a serious proposal, adding insulation would have required cladding over the interior framing of the walls. In the end, the conclusion was that the glazing on the outside and the cladding on the inside would be too radical a change to the architecture, and the plan was abandoned.
The next proposal was to build a climate controlled dome over the African House. This pitch was quickly discarded. In the end, the most seriously considered scheme centered on the possibility of building climate controlled vitrines for each mural. If successfully constructed, these would have created a protective microclimate around each painting, and could have created an almost worry free situation for them. However, and I quote from the final report of McNaughton & Associates as to why this solution was also eventually rejected, I quote, “It was decided that the effectiveness of such a control would depend to a great extent on how well this system could be maintained over a long period of time. Although the microclimates in vitrines can remain stable over long periods, eventually they must be opened up, the silica gel reconditioned, and the climate box resealed. For the cost, it is likely that an established maintenance program of frequent inspections and periodic conservation treatments would be the single most effective way of preserving the paintings.” My report contained almost the same exact conclusion. Although, in the end, the plan for preserving the murals put forth by McNaughton & Associates recommended no major changes to African House or to the installation, it did include two very important ideas. The first was lightning protection. Obviously a fire caused by a lightning strike would have been devastating. Along similar lines, a system with smoke detectors which would sound an alarm was suggested. Since there was no firefighting equipment in the vicinity, fire extinguishers were to be placed on every floor.
Before I get to the evaluation of decisions made in 1983-84, based on my visit to the murals yesterday, I thought it would be worthy to take a side trip and show some photos of the actual treatment of the murals in 1984, along with those of a very special guest, to whom we showed our work back at that time. Rather than removing the murals from the wall right away, by that time I was working with my colleague, Jay Kruger, we decided it was best to clean them first, in place. As hard as it is to believe, that is I working on the murals there. After the cleaning, we removed the paintings from the wall in order that they could placed flat, face-up so that we could affectively re-adhere the flaking paint. We had worked around these fragile areas when we were cleaning. Most of the rest of the treatment was conducted with the painting flat. With the paint on the mural secure, it was turned over and the back was sealed with a varnish that would provide an effective barrier to moisture penetration. As you can see from the wall of the building, up there, on the top left, moisture penetration was a decided risk. After the back of the painting was dry, it was turned over and given a thin coating of removable methacrylate varnish on the odd verse. Stains and losses were then in-painted. A final brush coating of methacrylate varnish was then applied to even out the gloss. At that point, the painting was reinstalled, the next painting was removed, and the process was repeated. Here are a couple of before and after photos of two of the murals.
At some point during our treatment, we played host to an important participant in the project, the artist, Clementine Hunter. This photo shows her arrival at African House. That is my colleague Jay Kruger and I, and I really apologize for the shorts. Ninety-seven years old at this time, Ms. Hunter had not visited Melrose Plantation in approximately seventeen years. We were told that she was very excited by our efforts and couldn’t keep herself from coming to see it. As I think you can see from her dress, this was indeed a special event for her. Although I can’t remember how it went getting up the stairs, I don’t recall that there was much problem. Once in the room with the murals, we were treated to a very lively discourse on the events that were depicted on each mural. Although Jay and I did show Ms. Hunter the types of things we were doing to preserve the paintings, the artist seemed particularly interested in pointing out the features of what she depicted in every mural. I don’t know if this session was taped, as it probably should have been, but I know some of the other people present, were taking notes, so perhaps a good part of the discussion is still preserved. Jay and I thoroughly enjoyed this afternoon, but I think our favorite moment occurred when Ms. Hunter described what she had painted in this mural, a scene of a dance on the plantation. Clementine Hunter pointed to a male figure depicted in the painting who was bleeding heavily through a bandage on his leg. She said the man was, I believe, her second husband. He had apparently arrived drunk at the party and Clementine was suspicious that he had been stepping out on her. “So I just stabbed him,” is what she said. I think our faces showed our combined amusement and disbelief.
As I stated earlier, yesterday, I was taken to Melrose Plantation, to evaluate the condition of the Clementine Hunter murals. This was the first time I’d seen them since 1984. It was my sincerest hope that I would find that the paintings would have remained far better preserved that I over those 28 years. I think we can all agree that if that was not the case these paintings would be in trouble. Happily, my hopes for the conservation of the murals were realized when I saw them yesterday. Although I did note some condition issues, it was clear that the murals had survived as well over the period from 1984-2012, as they had over the period of 1955-1984. Most of the paintings exhibited only minor loss of other condition changes. A couple of the murals had slightly more severe damage, but given another 28 years, essentially without temperature or humidity control, these problems could only be construed as minor. Somewhat more disconcerting, was the durability of our surface treatments conducted 28 years before. In that treatment the paintings were in-painted with water color and butamethacrylate varnish.
The in-painting had almost uniformly gone chalky. This probably should not have been a surprise given what is now known about the permanence of sink white. Likewise, the saturation level provided by the varnish applied in 1984 had become significantly reduced. The effect of this gloss reduction was that the streakiness that had been reduced by our varnishing in 1984 had returned. There can be little doubt that further discoloration of the original varnish added to this effect. In yesterday’s inspection, two of the murals did exhibit rather severe problems with a considerable amount of flaking paint. Curiously, these were the same two paintings that showed the most severe problems in 1984. Whether this condition resulted from some inherent technical difference in the way these two paintings were constructed, or if it results from a different microclimate in the places where they hang, these two murals are in need of treatment as soon as possible in order to stabilize the paint. Also, these two paintings should be monitored as closely as possible in the future. In another somewhat disconcerting finding from yesterdays examination, was evidence of exit holes from some new insect infestation. Although only about half of the picture showed this type of damage and most only had a couple of exit holes, it is an area of concern. Also, deposits of fly frass and even some accumulation of bird droppings were worse than they had been in 1984.
In the not too distant future, it is hoped that money can be raised from renovation of the African House structure for the most part to reconstruct the roof. The removal and storage of the murals will be required at this time. It would be best if the loose and flaking paint could be consolidated along with the removal of the murals, or ideally sooner. If experts determine that the panels are indeed actively infested with wood boring insects, they should also be treated soon for this condition. Given that there is still some ongoing paint cleavage that accumulates with insect and bird droppings, continued to plague the paint surfaces and that there is now some evidence of insect infestation. The installation of the paintings into vitrines should be revisited if they are to be reinstalled into Africa House after its construction.
Jason Church: And if we have any questions this time, we can take them for Mr. Swicklik on the murals. Any questions? Yes sir.
Michael Swicklik: I do believe that McNaughton & Associates had some of that information, in 1984, and that was discussed, but in the end it did not play a huge role in our decision making.
Jason Church: Another question? Okay. Thanks so much.
Michael Swicklik is a Senior Conservator of Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Where he has worked since 1984. He has a B.A. in Chemistry and Art History from Colgate University and a Masters of Arts with a certificate in Art Conservation from the State University of New York Cooperstown Graduate Program.
Michael’s research has included painting techniques from various regions from the 16th to the 20th century. He has most recently published along with Barbara Berrie an article on a Mantegna Madonna and Child in 2008’s Techne. He has also published and lectured on the technique of John Constable and on the use of varnish in French Painting technique of the 18th and 19th centuries.