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Hale Woodruff's celebrated murals are restored for exhibit

ATLANTA — Treasured at Talladega College in the small central Alabama town where they have remained on view for seven decades, Hale Woodruff's six monumental murals otherwise have resided in a relative twilight zone of obscurity.

But now they are being readied for their national close-up.

On June 9, the High Museum of Art opened "Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College" for a three-month run before sending the exhibit on a seven-city, three-year tour that will include stops in New York, Washington, Detroit and New Orleans.

"This is their moment," Stephanie Heydt, the High's American art curator, said about the works that are appreciated by American art scholars and admirers in the know but otherwise often overlooked in art texts and catalogs. They are considered among the greatest achievements of Woodruff (1900-1980), who ran the art department at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta) from 1931 to 1946 and was one of the most influential African-American artists-educators of his generation.

To prepare the large-scale paintings on canvas for all the travel and attention, it took 1,200 hours of careful restoration, spread over a year, at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization.

"The shared desire (of the museum and Talladega College) was to raise their national presence, reintroducing them into the canon," Heydt said of the two series that explore civil rights themes from Africa to the reconstruction-era South. "I don't think they were ever dropped from the canon, but (the idea was) to represent them fresh."

Fresh is an accurate description of the improved condition of the six murals the late Atlanta artist was commissioned to create in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The vibrantly colorful paintings commemorate Talladega's 1867 founding as one of the country's first colleges established to serve newly freed slaves.

The first cycle of three murals, installed at the college's Savery Library on the centennial of the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, depicts the uprising, trial and subsequent return to Africa of those freed men.

In 1942, Woodruff completed a cycle of companion murals that portrayed the Underground Railroad, Talladega College's founding and Savery Library's construction.

As complex and detailed as the murals are, Woodruff installed the works with the aid of students in a most simple manner. He nailed the sextet of loose canvases, ranging roughly in size from 6 by 10 feet to 6 by 20 feet, to the walls in the library's lobby. Frame-like molding was then attached around the edges.

For better (in terms of their survival) and for worse (in terms of their under-the-art-world's-radar location), they had not moved an inch in 70 years before being carefully removed for conservation.

Conservator Larry Shutts had an unusually positive impression when he first laid eyes on Woodruff's creations, hung high on the walls of the library's windowless lobby. Over his 17-year career, Shutts had worked on many sunlight-faded WPA-era murals in post offices, courthouses and federal buildings for the U.S. government. But Talladega's were notably different.

"My initial impression was, 'Wow, these are really nice! They're very beautiful, they're very colorful, they look very good.' They looked good there," he recalled.

That was encouraging because anything on display for that long would be expected to have condition issues, usually from exposure to UV rays.

"That dark vestibule had absolutely no natural light, so we had no ultraviolet-induced fading that typical murals show," Shutts said. "Those (public) places usually have giant windows that are flooded with light. These had four incandescent chandeliers."

But even in the relative dimness, Shutts took note of some issues, including flaking paint.

Some of the tacks originally used to attach the canvases to the plaster walls had rusted away or pulled out, so that the murals had started to sag from their own weight, especially in the middle, like "bunting hanging off a balcony," the conservator recalled.

Not only were there tack holes around the perimeter, a few nails had been hammered around the middle, probably by a maintenance worker trying to address the drooping. Further, there were signs of water damage behind some of the pieces from a steam pipe inside the wall. Also, glue had been applied to the back of one of the canvases, requiring a careful removal using solvents and a spatula.

And the vibrant palette employed by Woodruff perhaps misled Shutts. It wasn't until he and other workers took the murals down from the library lobby's walls, rolled them onto long tubes and brought them to Atlanta and more closely examined them that the conservator was able to determine that they were coated in dirt, soot and grime.

Woodruff had not varnished the canvases, probably because there had not been enough time to let the paint dry and add a protective sealer coat before installation, Shutts said. Artists typically wait six months to a year to apply varnish, so it's not unusual for a large commission, typically finished close to a deadline, to be without it.