Current Issue

New life for a lost mural

Conservators are uncovering and restoring a John Thompson mural depicting images from Shakespeare. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

The University’s artistic history is getting more colorful.

Art conservators, working one square inch at a time, are painstakingly revealing the bold strokes, bright hues and playful images of an important John Thompson mural that eight decades ago dazzled patrons of the Little Theatre in Margery Reed Hall, and then was abruptly lost.

“We’re about half way through the cleaning stage,” explains Dan Jacobs, curator of the University’s art collections and director of the mural restoration. “We’ll begin in-painting in the fall. Next year we’ll be adding some of the missing pieces of the puzzle.”

Thompson taught painting at DU in the 1930s and ’40s and was regarded as an important Colorado modern artist. He painted murals throughout Denver, including the one in DU’s Little Theatre in 1929. The mural was a collection of images from Shakespeare painted on the proscenium arch that frames the stage. Two years later, the proud work was declared “out of date” by then-theater director Walter Sinclair, who ordered the mural covered with dark paint.

Thompson exploded, and the clash with Sinclair boiled onto the front pages of The Denver Post. Hard feelings nearly came to fisticuffs in the charged atmosphere. They gradually simmered when Thompson came to believe that the mural was forever lost. Memory of the artwork faded as well, as did the meaning of the few clues that remained.

In the decades that followed, the obliterated mural was ridden hard. Theater technicians punched holes, applied additional layers of paint, baked it with stage lights and blemished the arch with a barrage of nails, tacks and staples.

That changed in 2007, when a Denver political controversy resurrected interest in Thompson as a painter. The interest raised questions about the mural, which led to rediscovery of the artwork.

Jacobs jumped on the idea of bringing Thompson’s work back to life. He commissioned a chemical analysis to determine if the covering layers could be removed. He enlisted professional conservator Lisa Capano, who with two DU students — Stefani Schulte and Nicole Saint — slowly attempted restoration. The team used solvents, cotton swabs, scalpels and syringes to tediously remove paint and repair damage.

It was hot, dull, backbreaking work, but they never complained.

“It’s like a secret little treasure,” says Saint, whose yearlong experience with the mural helped earn her admission to a prestigious postgraduate art conservation program in Italy. “It’s [Thompson’s] work, but it’s our job to help today’s generation see this. It’s really exciting.”

The team’s only guide was a solitary DU photo of the Little Theatre interior that was taken about 1930. Otherwise, they trusted Capano’s experience, careful decision-making and slow, precise work — along with regular input from other conservators.

So far, funding for the restoration has come from the Daniels College of Business, which hopes to eventually use the theater as a lecture hall; the Partners in Scholarship program, which paid for hours of student help; and the DU art school. Progress has been “slow but steady,” says Jacobs, who is seeking additional financial help.

“You’ll start to see a damaged work become a finished one,” Jacobs says, noting that drawings Thompson made in support of a different mural have been acquired by the University through a gift and may prove valuable in understanding how the artist worked.

Schulte, who graduated in the spring, believes so strongly in the restoration that she’s staying in Denver and working “three or four jobs” so she can see the project to its end in about a year.

“We’re some of the first people to get to see it in full color,” she says proudly. “It’s a pretty cool aspect of DU history. This isn’t Michelangelo, but I love it.”


Comments are closed.