I was recently asked to be part of a presentation at the Oklahoma History Center along with a book signing for Art of the Oklahoma Judicial Center. I had planned a 12-minute talk, accompanied by a PowerPoint slide presentation. (That comes close to more than I normally speak on any given day, btw)
A few minutes before the presentation was set to begin, we got word that a suspicious backpack had been found in the parking lot. Once the bomb squad arrived, we would be asked to evacuate the room while they determined if the pack was actually a threat or just a lonely, forgotten bag. As a result, the presentation would need to be shortened.
So, my 12 minutes got cut. Really cut – basically, I thanked everyone for showing up, the artists for letting me write about their work and offered a pleasant reminder that books would be for sale out in the lobby.
A portion of what I had planned to say fits very well with my Time on Tuesday theme (which I hope to be more faithful about in 2015) so I’ve included that excerpt here.
Our recent efforts were not the first public art project undertaken in the building at 2100 N. Lincoln. In the early 1930s, Nan Sheets was named director of Works Progress Administration’s Art Program in Oklahoma. By the way, there were very few women directing those state programs. The commissions she made during her tenure included a series of murals for the third floor of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Monroe Tsatoke, one of the Kiowa artists who studied with Oscar Jacobson was selected for this project. He designed a series of ten figures to be painted directly on the building walls. While he was working on this project, Tsatoke contracted tuberculosis and he died in 1937, before he could complete the murals. Spencer Asah, who was also one of the Kiowa Six finished the last two figures, using Tsatoke’s designs.
On the whole, the WPA-era murals in Oklahoma have had a tough go of it and we are so lucky that these Tsatoke/Asah works have survived – Nan Sheets did an oral history interview for the Historical Society and recalled an incident in the ‘50s when the building was scheduled for painting and the murals were threatened. Keep in mind, she didn’t work at the Historical Society, she was director of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and an art-loving employee at the Historical Society called her.
Here’s the quote from Sheets’ interview: “I had to take it upon myself to not permit that to be done. They said, ‘well, the walls are dirty.’ And I said, ‘well, you paint around that mural.”
Protecting and conserving the murals became a priority for the Historical Society when Dr. Blackburn took over as executive director in 1999. Conservation efforts started in 2000 when flaking paint samples were chemically analyzed by the University of Delaware.
In 2005, the Oklahoma Historical Society moved to their current fabulous facility. And renovations began to transform the Wiley Post building into the Judicial Center. Plywood barriers were set up to protect the murals from construction dust and debris.
SIX YEARS PASSED (somehow Oklahoma government projects always get delayed….)
Finally in 2011, the plywood came down and Conservators Helen Houp and Anne Rosenthal began their work. Using the American Institute of Conservation guidelines these ladies began their work as art detectives, gathering as much information as possible about the original images. They were particularly excited about a metal plaque mounted on the wall. Anne said, “We popped the plaque off and boom, there was the 1934 wall right there. Little clues like that help us work out how the artist worked.”
Exposing a sample of the paint that had been Tsatoke’s canvas helped themdetermine what his work would have looked like when he originally completed it. Rosenthal’s family has a long history of capturing moments in time: her father, Joseph Rosenthal took the iconic photo of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Sculptor Felix de Weldon used Rosenthal’s picture to design the Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington Cemetery.
The conservators used dentist type tools, cotton swabs, adhesives and colored pencils to maintain as much of the original integrity of the image as possible. They returned the murals to their original glory. I was honored to observe their process and share the story of the murals, their creators and their conservators in Art of the Oklahoma Judicial Center.
(Photos by Neil Chapman)