About five years ago, Lori Goetsch, dean of K-State Libraries, looked up at the fading, water-damaged murals in the Reading Room at Kansas State University’s Hale Library and decided something had to be done to restore the four historic paintings.
David Hicks Overmyer, a regional artist from Topeka, painted the 11-by-15-foot murals in 1934 through a grant from the Works Progress Administration program. The murals — titled “Agriculture,” “Mechanics,” “Arts” and “Home” — depict Kansas State University’s four colleges at that time.
“They are a piece of heritage — the heritage of Depression-era art and what they represent about K-State’s history and about the history of the land-grant university,” she said.
Goetsch said she talked about the restoration with staff at the university’s Beach Museum of Art, who recommended she contact Mary Schafer, assistant paintings conservator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. In addition to working at the museum, Schafer operates an art conservation business.
Schafer worked to restore the paintings in two-week stints. Sometimes, she was alone; other times, a crew accompanied her.
“She basically did (the restoration) on her vacation time in the past four years,” Goetsch said.
Schafer’s first tasks were to analyze the damage and clean the murals of varnish and nonoriginal paint applied during a touchup in 1996.
Standing on scaffolding, Schafer cleaned each painting by dipping giant cotton swabs in solvents provided by the K-State chemistry department and rubbing the solution on a small area of each mural to reveal where paint had worn down or was completely gone.
Photos were taken of the murals after they were cleaned so the hues of the new paint could be matched to the original colors. Schafer then used tiny brushes to dot paint on each mural to fill in the images or pull out the colors of the original oil paint.
“The next conservator who treats these works will be able to remove the paint we used with a solvent that has very little effect on oil paint,” Schafer said. “I hope that these murals won’t have to be touched for another 30 or more years.”
The restoration project revealed some of Overmyer’s painting techniques and uncovered some details few people notice when viewing the murals from the ground.
“The original paint has become more transparent over time, making some of the grid lines Overmyer used to create his painting more visible,” Schafer said. “They tell you a little bit about how he started painting the murals. He used the grid to transfer a composition from a sketch to the wall. In this way he was able to go from something small to something much larger.”
Overmyer used black charcoal to draw the grid lines, as well as add detail on top of the paint. For example, in the mural titled “Home,” one can see the faint outlines of a book on a music stand and a diamond-shaped window that were never painted in the final version.
Goetsch said the Friends of K-State Libraries paid the bulk of the $150,000 needed to restore the murals.