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Art conservator works to restore 92-year-old mural

July 2, 2019

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — It’s survived two building moves, almost 100 years of freezing winters and hot summers and, for the last year and a half, the dust and grime from being part of a construction site.

But blood once again flows red from wounded patriots and moonlight illuminates Paul Revere’s midnight ride, all thanks to Birgit Straehle’s work restoring a panoramic mural at Stearns Tavern.

“It’s an important scene, and it’s astonishing after you clean, how much a difference is made,” said Ms. Straehle, associate paintings conservator at Worcester Art Museum. “You can really see what’s going on and look at the scene and appreciate it.”

The mural dates to 1927, and is signed by artists named F.O. or P.O. Porsman and Stephen with a last name beginning with a D. or a B. Because the artists are currently unknown, it is impossible to say with 100% certainty what the scene depicts. It’s painted with oils on canvas glued to the walls of a 13 1/2-by-15-foot room in the tavern.

“It’s all part of the mystery,” Ms. Straehle said.

She and Deborah Packard, executive director of Preservation Worcester, which owns the Stearns Tavern and will donate it to the city when the roughly $2 million renovation and restoration project is completed, said they hoped that more information on the artists would identify their source material or inspiration, possibly even a painting or print on which the mural is based.

The mural appears to show Paul Revere’s midnight ride on the front wall of the room, as a moonlighted horseman gallops toward the viewer shouting and rousing households.

The remaining three walls depict a daytime battle scene — likely Lexington and Concord — with minutemen crouching behind trees and stone walls to shoot at distant redcoats lined up across a field. With the patriots in the foreground, it’s clear whose side you’re on — literally, you are standing with the patriots, thanks to the panoramic nature of the painting. And as your fellow minutemen grimace in pain after the latest British volley, tend to the wounded, and maneuver for their next shot, you are in the line of fire.

“I think it makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the battlefield,” Ms. Straehle said.

But to experience that feeling has taken a lot of work.

Ms. Straehle started working on the project last summer and found that although much of the paint was in good condition, it was unstable on the canvas.

“There were some areas where the paint was severely unstable and I came in to do work right away to prevent more original paint loss,” Ms. Straehle said. “There are areas where it was very unstable, some places where it was OK.”

So, on days off from the museum, Ms. Straehle started the long restoration process.

First was a process called consolidation, which involves reattaching loose paint flakes to the surface of the canvas.

Then she started cleaning the canvas.

Next, she will use extremely fine brushes and magnifying equipment to fill in the speckling, or small dots where paint is missing, matching the existing paint colors by eye.

“I’m concerned with the cleaning and varnishing, but whoever walks in is concerned with the white spots? Ms. Straehle said, laughing.

And should standards in conservation change, Ms. Straehle uses conservation materials that are reversible.

“It makes it very easy for people in 100 years to remove what I do in minutes or hours,” she said.

The work is exacting and solitary — although the construction workers play great music, which helps the time pass, Ms. Straehle said, laughing. And she is unsure how much longer the restoration will take, as there are still decisions to be made on whether to apply a varnish to the work that will help protect it and make the colors more saturated.

There are also certain challenges to the project: it is very large, and while the renovated building will have better climate control than in the past, the mural will not be in a museum setting so it will need to be continually monitored. In some places the canvas is more firmly attached to the wall than in others.

But Ms. Straehle, whose apprenticeship and training involved working occasionally on churches in Germany, joked that she appreciated that the work was close to the ground. Plus, she said there’s a satisfaction in watching the scene emerge from underneath dust and grime.

“It’s fun to spend time with the artwork and see it transforming,” she said. She pointed to a wounded figure that had been obscured for years. “It’s very satisfying work because it just becomes a figure again.”

Ms. Packard agreed. “With your cleaning, it comes alive.”

Online: https://bit.ly/2KQMoHb

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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com

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