Grenier restores artwork in the state Capitol
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Elise Grenier misses nothing, even when it’s 30 feet high in the Louisiana State Capitol’s Memorial Hall.
The flaking, cracking and especially the history doesn’t escape her. And though repairing and restoring the damage is imperative, it’s the history she most values.
After all, the building and its artwork would be incomplete without its history. From the initial idea to the detail work, the history makes the connection.
Grenier has climbed high on the scaffolding to preserve the details of the stencil border mural along the ceiling.
Calvin Mayeux, operations manager of the state Department of Administration/Office of State Buildings, contacted her about repairing patches of artwork in Memorial Hall, the capitol’s grand entryway.
The paint in the ceiling was flaking in places, taking with it tiny pieces of history.
“The decorated ceiling bears coats of arms representing the nations that have ruled Louisiana,” says Grenier, who discovered that information in Vincent Kubly’s 1977 book, “Louisiana’s State Capitol, It’s Art and Architecture.”
Grenier’s research is always extensive preceding any conservation, which has become her life’s work.
According to Kubly’s book, the ceiling of the hall “is covered with stenciled oak leaf designs and bordered by shields representing the dominations of Louisiana: the Indians, Spain, Bourbon, and Napoleonic France, The Confederacy and the United States.”
He noted that artists Louis Borgo and Andrew Mackey painted the ceiling under the direction of muralist Jules Guerin, who created the murals over the House and Senate entrances in his New York studio.
The artists used tempera paint, which, Grenier says, “was an inexpensive way of doing this. The higher up it is, the less people can see from the floor.”
But there are a few revelations to be discovered close up.
“You can see the artists’ process. See these tick marks?” says Grenier, pointing to small lines marked off at intervals along the border. “These are the marks they made to keep the border in line. They would stretch a string across here, then make the marks. Most people wouldn’t notice it, but I see it here.”
And seeing it gives her insight to the process.
“It’s amazing that Huey Long had this building completed in 14 months, and all of this artwork was done in that time,” Grenier says. “And it’s all held up so well.”
Repairs on the border stencil work are minor. Grenier did a chemical analysis before starting the project and has documented her progress through photos. The work was done in compliance with the American Institute of Conservation ethical standards at a cost of $2,200.
Still, Granier can’t help taking a closer look at the plaster bas relief border beneath it while she’s on the scaffolding. It depicts scenes from Louisiana’s history.
“It’s in good shape,” Grenier says. “Still, I’m taking a survey of all the artwork while I’m working here.”
Grenier grew up in Baton Rouge. Until recently, she lived in Vinci, a town named for Leonardo da Vinci in Italy’s Tuscany Hills. That’s where, in 1985, she established Grenier Conservation, which has taken her to jobs throughout the world, including the restoration of Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fore, also known as The Dome.
She’s also worked on restoration projects in Louisiana, most notably Conrad Albrizio’s murals at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport and his students’ frescoes in LSU’s Allen Hall. She’s become known as a caretaker of sorts for the public works of Albrizio, who was LSU’s first professor of painting, as well as an internationally known fresco painter. Born in New York in 1894, Albrizio later settled in New Orleans and died in Baton Rouge in 1973.
He’s remembered for the murals he created for public buildings throughout Louisiana, many of which were commissioned by various New Deal programs during the Great Depression. He received his first major commission to paint frescoes in the new State Capitol building while it was being constructed in 1931. Grenier completed restoration of his mural in the Capitol Annex before taking on this project.
She also restored New Orleans sculptor Angela Gregory’s bas relief murals in downtown’s Watermark Hotel, along with contemporary public art created by elusive street artist Banksy in New Orlean’s Marigny neighborhood.
She’s been accessible for more Louisiana projects since coming home, a move was prompted by her father’s illness. Her parents, David and Virginia Grenier, live in Baton Rouge, and her dad has often worked as her assistant on Louisiana projects.