Mural restoration celebrates legacy of rare campus artwork

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BATON ROUGE -- In the late 1930s and 1940s, five Louisiana State University art students literally painted history onto the walls of the university's Allen Hall.

The student artists -- Sue Brown Dietrich, Jean Birkland McCandless, and the late Roy Henderson, Ben Porter Watkins and Anne Woolfolk White -- painted fresco murals under the direction of the late Conrad Albrizio, LSU's first professor of painting and an internationally known fresco painter famous for such local projects as the New Orleans train station. All five artists as undergraduates painted panels for an interior mural at the east end of Allen Hall.

A restoration of this interior mural and another exterior one was one of the projects undertaken to celebrate the university's 75th Campus Jubilee, which commemorated the 75 years LSU has been at its present site.

The restoration effort was headed by Bill Eskew, director of facilities development at LSU, and completed by Cheryl Elise Grenier, an LSU alumna who has worked in Italy for the past 18 years preserving Renaissance-period murals.

The College of Arts and Sciences, housed along with the English department in Allen Hall, recently hosted a reception at Hill Memorial Library to mark the completion of the restoration.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Daniel Fogel said, "Many people in the community care about this [project]."

He recognized and thanked Paula Garvey Manship and Emogene Pliner, who donated funds for the restoration.

Natalie Fielding, a friend of the LSU Museum of Art, also played a major role in the restoration effort. As part of her work cataloging all the art belonging to the university, she saw the interior murals, noted their need for repair and approached Manship, a personal friend, to request a donation to fund the restoration project.

Fogel also acknowledged Dietrich and McCandless, who attended the event with family members.

An emotional McCandless said she was overwhelmed. "I've gotten to see all my old friends," she said with tears in her eyes.

McCandless, who lives in Los Altos Hills, Calif., has continued to work as a sculptor and has completed both public and private commissions throughout her career. Her section of the fresco illustrates the importance of agricultural research to the state.

Also present were relatives of the late Anne Woolfolk White, including White's daughter Molly White Nicosa; grandson Daniel Nicosa; sister Allie Woolfolk; and nephew Doug Woolfolk.

Nicosa, who resides in Zachary, said her son, an eighth grader, is following in the footsteps of his grandmother. "He's the artist in the family," said Nicosa, noting that Daniel has been drawing and painting seriously for the past three years.

As her master's thesis project, White depicted the culture and economic development of Louisiana in her portion of the interior mural.

Dietrich, whose interior fresco depicts scenes from a school library and a classroom, is a longtime resident of Tallahassee, Fla. She grew up in Baton Rouge, however, and is the daughter of the late Henry Bates Brown, one of LSU's first research agronomists. Her work inside Allen Hall includes portraits of her father and other members of her family.

Dietrich was also recognized at the reception for another special contribution: her work on the fresco she painted under the portico outside the northeast corner of Allen Hall. The mural, Dietrich's master's thesis project, was painted over for unknown reasons in the 1960s and had been concealed ever since. Grenier had been working on uncovering and restoring it since December 2000.

Following the reception, guests walked to the nearby Allen Hall to watch as Dietrich drew the curtain to unveil the restored artwork.

Approximately 18 feet wide by 14 feet high, the mural represents the importance of both education and hard work. It depicts two men, one smaller crouching under the arm of another larger, and a large red-headed woman embracing a child. A huge wheel, representing industry, forms the backdrop.

"They say everyone has 15 minutes of fame," a beaming Dietrich said, "this is mine."

Dietrich said it took her about one month, working approximately eight hours per day, to complete the mural.

Grenier said it took one month just to remove the three layers of paint that were put on top of Dietrich's exterior mural. She noted that the mural proved to be "extremely forgiving in its tolerance of the chemicals and manipulation required to remove the heavy layers of over painting, which could even destroy other types of mural paintings."

Grenier said that the quality of both the interior and exterior murals compares favorably with the highest quality frescoes that she has worked on in Italy. According to her, the LSU frescoes reveal both the artists and their instructor as perfectionists in the craft of fresco painting, the most exacting and difficult of painting mediums.

Grenier said she dreamed of becoming a fresco restorer while an art student at LSU. She said the university's frescoes make the campus unique because fresco painting, which involves the artist painting on a wet mixture of lime and sand, is a rare medium in the United States.

In addition to another concealed mural located on the south exterior wall of Hill Memorial Library, Grenier has discovered a second interior mural at the south end of Allen. The mural and its location are detailed in Henderson's thesis, Grenier said. The university is considering launching another restoration effort to uncover and restore this artwork as well, according to Eskew.

Today, more than 60 years later, the work of Conrad Albrizio's prize student artists remains an integral part of university life.

"Your creativity still speaks to us," Grenier said to Dietrich and McCandless.

For more information, contact the LSU College of Arts and Sciences at (225) 578-4801 or (225) 578-8273.


Contact Jennifer MelanconLSU News Service, Feature Writer225 578-5685[email protected]


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