In 1986, amidst the bustle of West Harlem, a rich, jewel-tone mural could be seen rising 30 feet above the lush oasis of Hope Stevens Garden. Homage to Seurat: La Grande Jatte in Harlem, the last remaining work in New York City by the artist Eva Cockcroft, repurposed Seurat’s pointillist style to depict the beauty and diverse community of Harlem.
Sadly, by 2007 the treasured community mural was in dramatic disrepair. Portions of the mural had been covered by new stucco to repair cracks and leaks. The once vibrant colors had faded to pastels. The mural was truly at risk of being lost forever. Heritage Preservation’s Rescue Public Murals initiative was founded to address and raise awareness of the immediate needs of murals like Homage to Seurat by confronting the risks that community murals face by being located in outdoor, public spaces. Rescue Public Murals seeks to bring public attention to U.S. murals, document their unique artistic and historic contributions, and secure the expertise and support to save them.
Founded in 2006, Rescue Public Murals has been responsible for bringing conservators and artists together to evaluate the condition of endangered murals. By using both a conservator and a muralist for assessments, Rescue Public Murals brings the best technical and artistic knowledge together to document a mural’s condition and determine the most appropriate way to preserve it.
To date, Rescue Public Murals has provided assessments for 16 murals of national significance, including Homage to Seurat. Harriet Irgang of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates and Brooklyn muralist Janet Braun-Reinitz were responsible for performing an assessment of Homage to Seurat in 2006 and recommended a plan for its restoration. When performing their assessment, Harriet and Janet discovered that the wall had not been primed before it was painted and it likely had never been sealed. These factors contributed greatly to the mural’s degradation over the years.
Findings such as this, and on countless murals like it, inspired Rescue Public Murals’ most recent initiative, Mural Creation Best Practices. While working to ensure the protection and preservation of existing murals, Rescue Public Murals recognized that many common challenges murals face could be mitigated with careful planning and preparation. Rescue Public Murals has held conversations and brainstorming sessions with muralists, conservators, art historians, arts administrators, materials scientists, and engineers to document best practices for mural creation. These recommendations are detailed at www.heritagepreservation.org/RPM/MuralBestPractices.
Recommendations are not meant to be prescriptive but instead pose questions and raise issues that should be considered at each stage of creating a mural: planning, wall selection, wall and surface preparation, painting, coating, and maintenance. Below is a snapshot of those recommendations at each stage.
Community murals that are expected to last require deliberate planning. Each party âˆ’ the commissioning organization, artist(s), building owners, community members, and other partners âˆ’ should establish what rights and responsibilities they have in the process of creating and maintaining the mural. This should include defining the scope and lifespan of a mural, determining ownership, and responsibility for long-term maintenance.
Often the decision to paint a mural comes from a desire to fill a specific blank wall. Murals can serve to brighten a park or schoolyard, create interest for a local business, or commemorate a relevant person or historical event. While these are all valid reasons for selecting the location of a mural, it’s important to make sure the chosen wall has the physical qualities necessary to limit factors of degradation. Some factors to consider include the security of a specific location, the wall’s exposure to direct sunlight, how water flows through or away from the wall, and structural stability.
Wall and Surface Preparation
In addition to taking care in selecting a physically stable and secure wall, it is important to prepare the wall for paint and other materials that may be used. Efforts should be made to properly clean the wall, select a primer that is compatible with other materials being used, and the process should be documented carefully. Primer and paint should be applied when temperatures are warmer than 50 degrees Fahrenheit and only in dry weather.
The long-term appearance of a mural depends on careful paint selection. Consider using the same manufacturer for primer, paint, and coating. Colors that conform to “ASTM I” are ideal, but “ASTM II” are also acceptable. If using acrylic dispersion paints, the statement “conforms to D5098” is an indication of colorfastness. Some research has indicated that colors mixed with titanium oxide (white) have a greater tendency to fade unless the coating of the mural is well maintained. Likewise, cadmium reds, yellows, and ultramarine blue tend to fade outdoors.
Coatings are most often used to aid in graffiti removal, although some topcoats also provide protection from ultraviolet fading and may provide protection to the paint layer from deterioration. However, some muralists have experienced issues with clear coatings – they can become cloudy, yellow, or chip and flake. Leave a small portion of the mural uncoated and mark and photograph this area. This area will make it easier to observe in the future if the coating is clouding, yellowing, or failing.
It is far more cost effective at the start of a project to select materials that are designed to withstand the environment and to begin a schedule of regular maintenance than to restore a mural completely. In addition, a well-maintained mural is less likely to be a target for vandalism. Regular inspections should be assigned to one or more parties. Guidelines about who may make repairs or repainting should be defined.
More detailed recommendations can be found on the Mural Creation Best Practices website, a project made possible by an Access to Artistic Excellence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. These recommendations assume that a mural painted with careful planning and consideration of technique, materials and receiving regular maintenance could have a significant lifespan.
For the West Harlem community, that is certainly the hope for Homage to Seurat. In 2009, thanks in large part to the work of Rescue Public Murals assessors, the mural was finally restored with materials donated by Golden Artist Colors to its former glory and once again provides a colorful backdrop to the community. The artists, conservator, and neighbors that were involved in the restoration have met annually to inspect the mural and, to date, remains in good condition.
Public murals inform citizens, enliven neighborhoods, and comment on events, aspirations, and challenges in communities. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make murals so distinctive also lead to their disintegration. Rescue Public Murals hopes through its endeavors, like assessments and best practices, to raise awareness of these issues and promote the long-term preservation of this very prominent art form.
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