EverGreene has had the privilege of restoring numerous artworks by legendary black Americans. This month, we take a closer look at some of these murals and the artists who created them as well as a new project, the restoration of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers’ home. Each of the projects, by contributing to the African-American historical narrative has contributed significantly to the United States as a whole.
Harlem Hospital Murals
The murals at the original Harlem Hospital, commissioned by the WPA in 1936, were likely the first major U.S. government commissions awarded to African-American artists. The murals were originally installed in several buildings that were demolished to make way for a new hospital center. EverGreene removed, conserved, reinstalled and restored these significant murals in the new 12,000-sf atrium gallery in the Medical Services Pavilion designed by HOK Architects.
Georgette Seabrooke: Recreation in Harlem
Recreation in Harlem tells the story of 1930s Harlem in a series of vignettes, stretching across 108 square feet. The mural shows scenes of leisure, with figures drawn close together as if gathered for a snapshot of life in Harlem. The mural, originally designed for the Nurses Residence, was Seabrooke’s “attempt to give the nurses something to look at, something which they could partake in and find interesting rather than their own personal work which in a recreation room might not be as exciting as a subject apart.” Seabrooke was the only woman asked to create a work for the Harlem Hospital. The original sketch for the mural was rejected by the hospital officials, who had problems with the depiction of an all-negro Harlem. To appease them she added a few white figures but painted them facing away from the picture plane.
Over the years Recreation in Harlem had been damaged by fire, over-painted, and covered with drywall. Conservators carefully removed the post-historic paint layers and discovered that many vignettes were intact, though the overall composition was fragmented. The project team chose not to fully restore the mural to a like-new appearance, but rather recreated the figures in the severely damaged areas to unify the composition. The conservators used reversible conservation paint so that future conservators can work on the mural without disturbing the original, and differentiate between the original and new paint.
Charles Alston: Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine
Charles Alston’s two murals, Magic and Medicine and Modern Medicine, juxtapose traditional and modern healing practices in Africa and the United States. Originally installed facing each other, and above radiators (hence, the rectangular cutouts at the bottom), the new gallery design recalls the 1940’s spatial relationship to better articulate the didactic element of the two pieces. The Fang reliquary statue, a type of ritual art piece from Gabon, pictured in Magic and Medicine is contrasted with the giant microscope present in the center of Modern Medicine, conveying the differences in social and spiritual paradigms in each healthcare system.
Alston was not only a renowned artist but also one of the first African-American teachers at the Art Students league and MoMA. His work was exhibited in MoMA and at The Met, in the 1950’s exhibition “American Painting Today” and his painting Family is in the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection.
Vertis Hayes: Pursuit of Happiness
Hayes’ Pursuit of Happiness murals were originally painted in a narrow hallway in the first floor New Nurses Residence. The series chronologically follows the arc of African-American history: the forced migration from an ancestral African village to an American city, and explores the transformation that occurs. Hayes explores numerous motifs of progress symbolized by capitalism and the industrialized western civilization. Drawing from his own experience, one of the murals depicts the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North in search of a better lifestyle.
Four of the panels had been painted directly onto plaster and four had been painted on canvas. EverGreene conservators surveyed the murals, noted condition issues such as flaking paint and delamination of canvas from the substrate, and tested the plaster panels for stability. A system was developed with the design team for integrating the murals with the original architectural elements in a new gallery.
For more on the Harlem Hospital murals, click here.
John Biggers was an American muralist and painter who gained notoriety in the 1960’s. In 1943, Biggers was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Young Negro Art: The Work of Students at Hampton Art Institute. After travelling to Africa on a fellowship, Biggers returned to the US to teach at the Texas Southern University where he was named a Distinguished Professor in 1967. In 1988 he was named “Texas Artist of the Year” and received an Achievement Award from the Metropolitan Arts Foundation. Biggers’ artwork was heavily influenced by African and Southern-American culture and explores the interplay between both abstract and representational forms. In 2014, EverGreene conserved two large-scale Biggers murals in Harris County, Texas: Songs of the Drinking Gourds (1987) in Tom Bass Regional Park and Christia V. Adair (1983) in Christia V. Adair Park. The murals have been stabilized and restored. For more images of our conservation work click here.
Medgar Evers House
Medgar Evers was born in Decatur, MS, joined the Army in 1943, and after returning home, graduated from Alcorn College and was hired as the first full-time field secretary of the NAACP. As a prominent Civil Rights activist in Mississippi, he worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi; organize voter-registration efforts, protests and boycotts; and set up local chapters of the NAACP. He helped Gilbert Mason Sr. organize the Biloxi Wade-ins, protesting the segregation of the beaches in Biloxi, MI. Due to his high-profile position and work with the NAACP, Evers and his family were subject to numerous threats and violent acts. He was assassinated outside his home in the summer of 1963.
In 1994, The Medgar Evers House was renovated and since then has served as a historic house museum, memorializing Evers’ life and achievements. After repairing structural damage, Tougaloo College (the property owner) has been working to restore every detail of the house back to its 1963 appearance. EverGreene is currently replicating the wall paper that once hung in the kitchen of the mid-century home. The wall paper was removed shortly after the murder and the kitchen was painted for new tenants. Evidence of the original wall covering was found in historic photographs documenting the crime scene. Other restoration work completed by WFT Architects includes the removal of overpaint along the metal-tiled backsplash and uncovering the bullet hole in the wall separating the living room and kitchen, where the shot passed through the house the night Evers was assassinated. The museum will remain open throughout the restoration. For more information on the Medgar Evers House, click here.