The full-scale renovation of the Simon Fraser University Theatre (designed by Erickson/Massey) began in 2011 and included conservation treatment of the two large murals installed in its lobby. Painted by Chicago artist Buell Mullen (1901-1986), the murals were created during the original construction of the theatre in 1964. The colourful abstract patterns are made with epoxy resin applied to stainless steel panels, with minerals such as jade, gold nuggets and quartz used as collage elements. Much of the stainless steel support was left bare by the artist, allowing the reflective qualities of the metal to mirror light and movement back into the room.
Corrosion and paint loss due to water damage.
After studying at the Royal Academy in London and with Petrucci and Lipinsky in Rome, Buell Mullen became the first artist to use epoxy paint as a medium on metal a technique which brought her considerable fame during her lifetime. According to Mullen, the theme of her Theatres of the World murals references theatres from ancient Greek, Egyptian, Indian and other civilizations.
Once the steel panels were affixed to the theatre walls, they were polished with an abrasive implement to give the surface an abstract, semi-circular pattern in selected areas. Mullen also used a sharp tool to score the under-drawing of her design and texture the surface. She then painted between the scored areas with epoxy resin. In co-operation with members of the SFU Department of Chemistry, analysis of the paint media through Nuclear Magnetic Resonance technology confirmed epoxy as the paint media.
Overall, the works remained in fair condition. Water leaks had caused trails of corrosion and water damage was attributed to the considerable areas of paint loss and staining. Many years worth of tobacco smoke, fingerprints and general grime caked the surface, but most disturbing was the loss of many collage elements picked off by the public over the years. The damage noted is typical for public murals, especially for those in theatres and in other busy spaces. Scratches and dirt were most concentrated in the bottom halves where furniture had been pushed up against them; where people had leaned on them; and where food and drink flung from careless hands were most likely to land. The conservation treatment, to be discussed in Part 2 of this series, attempted to remove all dirt and corrosion, repair the paint layers and restore the collage elements to their original settings.
Previously: Rigid Water Gels: new treatment options for paper conservators
Next issue: Theatres of the World: the conservation of two murals in the Simon Fraser University Theatre, Part 2.