Three large WPA paintings on campus cleaned, restored

By University Communications
March 3, 2016
The Harvey Hall mural is above the building’s south entrance foyer.

Photo: The Harvey Hall mural is above the building’s south entrance foyer.

Eighty years ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, a state-born artist was hired through the federal Works Progress Administration to create artwork at Stout Institute.

Clarence “Cal” Peters, born in Port Washington, set up a studio in the basement of the university’s Harvey Hall and created, among others, three massive oil paintings in 1936. Two of the paintings depict the early American history of the region while one symbolizes the school’s mission and motto.

The work of Peters, who died in 1984 after a prolific career that took him around the U.S., is back in the spotlight at University of Wisconsin-Stout. As part of the Harvey Hall renovation project, the three largest of Peters’ paintings — he created about a dozen — have been cleaned and restored for the first time.

The allegorical mural, which includes 21 people and is titled “For the Promotion of Learning, Industry, Skill and Honor,” has been above the south entrance foyer to Harvey Hall since it was created. It is 35 feet long by 5½ feet high.

A special cleaning solution removes a layer of film on the 80-year-old mural.The other two large paintings have been moved back to Harvey Hall as part of the renovation. “Perrault’s Trading Fort,” 18½ feet long by 6 feet 3 inches high, hung for many years in the choir room in the Applied Arts Building. It has been rehung in Harvey’s first floor hallway.

“French Trappers on the Red Cedar,” 15½ feet long by 6 feet high, had been in a hallway in Micheels Hall. It is in Harvey Hall’s second-floor hallway, ready for when the building reopens in September.

The work of moving the two paintings and cleaning all three took place in late February, led by Ron Koenig, an architectural conservator from Ann Arbor, Mich., who owns Building Arts & Conservation.

Koenig, two assistants and two UW-Stout students that he hired as interns, painstakingly used a chemically neutralized 5 percent citric acid solution in deionized water to remove a film that had accumulated over the decades, dulling the paintings’ colors.

The mural, with three people working on it from a scaffold, took close to a week to clean. “When we worked on this, the blues really started to pop out,” Koenig said.

Ron Koeng, left, works with students Jacob Docksey and Emily Dillhunt, right, on two paintings.The crew also fixed areas on the three paintings that needed repair, then added a special protective varnish, which can be removed by future conservators. Cracks were filled with a gel substance.

The mural is painted on multiple sections of canvas and glued to a plaster wall, which has made it susceptible to cracks and water damage. “The mural actually is in great shape. There are no parts missing,” said Koenig, who has worked on historic paintings and murals around the country.

The other large Peters paintings, on single sheets of canvas, likely sailcloth, had “tenting,” or areas where the paint had dried and pushed up the canvas. Workers used parchment paper under an iron to flatten the “tents” and then touched up with water colors — the paintings are in oil — to fill in the cracks.

Click here to see a video about the project.

Jacob Docksey touches up Learning experience
for students

The two student workers, whom Koenig hired as short-term interns, were Emily Dillhunt and Jacob Docksey.

Dillhunt, a senior from Rochester, Minn., is majoring in game design and development. She previously worked on a Harvey Hall historic game animation project that included doing research on Peters, thus her interest in conserving the paintings.

“I now know so much more about Cal. He seems much more real. Before he seemed like a video game character,” Dillhunt said. “This is a kind of cool closure (to the game project).”

Koenig first showed Dillhunt and Docksey how to clean and help repair the paintings, then observed them before letting them work on their own. “It’s similar to how we do things in art classes,” Dillhunt said.

Cal Peters signed and dated his 1936 painting Docksey, a senior from Chippewa Falls, is majoring in studio art with an emphasis on painting.

“It’s pretty satisfying to go through this whole process. We brought these paintings back to life. Visually, they were in pretty bad shape,” Docksey said.

A painting should be able to “pull you in like a magnet,” and the restored paintings, with their once-again vibrant colors, do that. “When we put the varnish on, it made the colors pop again,” Docksey said.

Dillhunt and Docksey said that working with Koenig taught them valuable art preservation and art appreciation skills that they expect to use in their careers.

“I could not have found two people more perfect for what we’re doing here. They’re both really intelligent and talented people and have great hand skills,” Koenig said.

Koenig, who has a master’s degree in material conservation from the University of Pennsylvania, conducted research on Peters prior to working on the paintings and will issue a final report on the project to the university. “I feel so honored every day to be able to do this work,” Koenig said.



Second: A special cleaning solution removes a layer of film on the 80-year-old mural, revealing the original bright colors.

Third: Conservator Ron Koenig, left, works with Jacob Docksey and Emily Dillhunt, right.

Fourth: Jacob Docksey touches up the historic painting “French Trappers on the Red Cedar.”

Bottom: Cal Peters signed and dated his painting “Perrault’s Trading Fort.”