A Picture-Perfect Homecoming
Restored Clementine Hunter murals are reinstalled at African House
After almost two years away from their home at the African House of Melrose Plantation, murals by folk artist Clementine Hunter were finally reinstalled and will be celebrated on April 9, 2016, at the Clementine Hunter African House Murals Homecoming Gala. Most recently restored in the 1980s, these paintings needed the TLC of the team of art conservators at Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston, Texas.
We talked with Jill Whitten about her work and what Hunter would think of the restoration. (And don't miss out on the video at the end!)
What was the status of the murals before you started working on them?
There was a lot of flaking paint on some of the panels, especially the ones near the stairs where there was more of a temperature differential from people coming up the stairs bringing humidity on their bodies. These paintings live in a wonderful historic structure that doesn’t have any climate control or window screens or protection of any kind. It has a roof and walls and they live on the second floor, so part of the whole project was to stabilize the building, repair the roof, and make it a little better place for the paintings to live.
Everyone felt strongly that, because they were made for the space, they should go back in the space. Even though it isn’t an ideal situation, it’s just so critical to the history of these pieces and Clementine Hunter’s life on this plantation.
What work had to be done to restore the paintings?
We first set down the flaking paint. That’s the first thing you have to do when you treat a painting is stabilize it and then we cleaned the painting. There was a lot of insect frass on the front and the back and some bird droppings. The building is made of these wonderful wide hand-hewn planks that had big gaps and open knot holes so spiders and bugs were able to come in and access the back of the paintings. So all that was cleaned off.
After we put our varnish on we retouched losses, we filled the little insect holes, and we had all the panels treated in a nitrogen chamber to kill any latent bugs that might be in there. I spoke with the wood expert at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston who did that work and he said that it’s really unusual for plywood to be infested with bugs.
The thing we did that hadn’t really been done before was visually reduce the appearance of those big brown streaks [from a failed varnish that was applied soon after their installation] that really kind of chopped up the images. I mean the colors of the paintings are so bright even though they’ve faded a little bit over time but it was really disturbing to have those brown streaks. We used really thin glazes of reversible retouching colors to visually push them back so that you weren’t so aware of those brown stains. That made a real difference in how clean and fresh and legible the panels are now.
Has any work been done to prevent future deterioration?
We’re doing some things to improve the building. We’re putting Tyvek behind the panels which is a breathable building material that will really help keep out insects. The lighting in African House has been changed; it used to have these fluorescent lights that were practically touching the paintings and now they have lights that are closer to the middle of the room and they're LED lights which will be safer for the artwork—they won’t heat up and they don’t have UV components like fluorescent bulbs. There are going to be screens on the windows. All these little things will help keep the paintings cleaner and they’ll just have to be checked every couple of years for changes.
How do you think Clementine Hunter would react to the restoration?
I’m sorry I never got to meet her. Our colleagues who worked on the paintings in the 1980s got to meet her, she came and checked out what they were doing, and I think she was pleased. I think it’s a sign of respect when a living artist's work is given this kind of focused attention. I’d suspect that she’d be happy.
Check out the video to learn more about the Clementine Hunter murals and to see the restoration of the murals and the African House up close.