In the fall of 1978, Bob Workman was a recent Wichita State University graduate working at the school’s Ulrich Museum of Art. He was there when the shipment arrived from France containing 80 panels for what at the time was – and still is – the museum’s largest and most famous acquisition: a 28-by-52-foot outdoor mosaic mural by Spanish surrealist Joan Miro.
The mural’s installation on the entire south exterior wall of the McKnight Art Center was kept hidden until a reveal ceremony, and that day Workman was stationed on the roof to drop the canvas and forever brighten the campus landscape.
Workman left Wichita two years later and spent the next three decades working in museums around the country. He returned in 2013 to become director of the Ulrich and now gets to reveal again a newly restored Miro mural that has been off exhibit for five years.
“This time it’s really not a reveal, it’s a welcome home,” Workman said. “We are celebrating that it’s back in all of its glory. The ta-da moment is individual as each of us sees it again for the first time.”
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There will be no staged reveal, because the re-installation of the mural’s panels started on Sept. 7 and has happened in plain sight. The final panels go up this week, and the museum is hosting a free community celebration from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Fairmount Street will close between the museum and 17th Street to make room for a block party with dance and music performances from the College of Fine Arts and local bands, hands-on art projects including a community mural project and a make-it take-it miniature mosaic art piece, free refreshments and a mini-food truck rally. It’s a come-and-go event with Workman making remarks at 2:30 p.m.
“I can’t say my visual memory is 100 percent trustworthy 40 years later, but I absolutely think it’s now as dazzling as it was when it went up, if not more so,” Workman said.
How Wichita scored a Miro
Former WSU president Clark Ahlberg brought Martin H. Bush to campus to establish the art museum, which opened in 1974, and challenged Bush to commission a piece from a pre-eminent artist for the exterior, which is visible from what was then the school’s main entrance.
“Pablo Picasso was more of a household name than Joan Miro; however, Miro was right there among the pantheon of the most significant artists living at that time,” Workman said. Bush reached out to Picasso, but it’s unknown whether he responded, Workman said. Then he contacted Miro, who was excited by the opportunity to create public art to be installed on a college campus.
Getting Miro was scoring a significant acquisition for Wichita.
Bob Workman, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art
“Martin Bush was fearless; there was nothing he wouldn’t try,” Workman said. “Getting Miro was scoring a significant acquisition for Wichita.”
Miro painted “Personnages Oiseaux,” which translates to “Bird People,” for the Ulrich. It features big, whimsical shapes in brilliant colors that seem to float on a backdrop of paint splatter. He charged the Ulrich little for his work, but Miro did stipulate that a world-renowned stained-glass manufacturer in France, where he was living, interpret his oil-on-canvas painting into the mosaic mural. This allowed him to direct the artisans, who used opaque mosaic glass, translucent slab glass, slate and white and gray marble. Miro created 11 murals between 1937 and 1980, and “Bird People” is the only predominantly glass mosaic.
Because of the position of the pieces, they produce a beautiful sparkle, and the colors have a powerful light which lets the graphic keep all its vitality.
Joan Miro in 1977
“I believe it will be one of the best mosaics ever made,” Miro is quoted as saying in 1977 as the piece neared completion. “Because of the position of the pieces, they produce a beautiful sparkle, and the colors have a powerful light which lets the graphic keep all its vitality.”
The restoration begins
In the 1990s, Marianne Russell Marti became the principal conservator for the Ulrich’s 76-piece Martin H. Bush Outdoor Sculpture Collection, which includes “Bird People.” During routine maintenance, her Russell-Marti Conservation Services team found the mosaic was no longer stable.
After three decades of being exposed to the elements, the epoxy holding the tiles in place had become brittle and the marine-grade particle board those tiles were adhered to was deteriorating. In addition to the roughly 400 tiles that fell each year and broke on impact with the concrete patio below, other tiles in the mosaic were loose, damaged or out of place.
In 2007, the team began three years of research and testing to develop a procedure for repairing and stabilizing the work of art without changing the look from the front. For example, that sparkle effect came from light reaching more of each tile because they were affixed with a small amount of epoxy rather than being encapsulated in mortar, like a traditional mosaic. Any replacement adhesive would have to allow the tiles to stand on their own to keep the iridescence.
Russell-Marti used mockup panels, then conducted a trial treatment of three actual panels. In 2010, they presented their results to the Ulrich along with a conservation proposal. The plan was approved, and in 2011, the 80 3-by-5-foot panels were de-installed and put into storage. Starting in 2012, the museum began shuttling the 180-pound panels – about 14 at a time – to the Russell-Marti workshop in central Missouri.
The conservators started the innovative and meticulous treatment on the front of the mosaic, repairing tiles. They returned to the original French manufacturer for most of the replacement glass but had to source some colors from other mosaic glass companies. They used the footprint visible in the epoxy and earlier photographs as a guide for cutting new tiles and returning all tiles to their intended place in the mural. They created a gelatin facing to hold the front in place and protect it while they flipped the mosaic and worked on the back.
On the back, they removed the particle board and epoxy and replaced those materials with a flexible silicone adhesive proven in the construction industry to hold windows in high-rises or atriums, and a perforated stainless steel backing.
The final treatment step was turning the panel on its back again, removing the gelatin facing and cleaning every one of the approximately 350,000 tiles individually using scalpels, dental steamers and fiberglass brushes. The entire treatment process used tools and machinery borrowed from a variety of industries or made for this project.
“This was an awesome, exhilarating, humbling experience,” Marti said of the nine-year project. “No one ever got tired of working on the mural because it’s such a fascinating piece, and to be able to see it up close, you really appreciate that it is a beautiful and faithful interpretation of the artist’s painting. Seeing that original sparkle come back was very satisfying.”
The museum raised $2.2 million for the restoration from individuals, corporations and foundations, including $600,000 in competitive federal grants. Workman said he’s personally talked to numerous donors who were inspired by “Bird People” while students. Another reason he’s thrilled to have the crown jewel of his museum’s collection back: An entire class of students has entered WSU and graduated while the mural was down.
The building has been naked; we’ve missed Miro.
Bob Workman, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art
“The building has been naked; we’ve missed Miro,” he said.
The university estimates 600,000 visitors come to campus each year, and Ulrich staff members say it’s not uncommon during the summer for out-of-towners to stop by the museum for a sculpture garden map and comment that they came to Wichita specifically to see the Miro mural, one of only four on display in the U.S.
Joan Miro is one of the most recognized surrealist artists of all time.
Jennifer Lane, public relations manager at the Ulrich
“Joan Miro is one of the most recognized surrealist artists of all time, and I don’t know that Wichita knows what it has,” said Jennifer Lane, public relations manager at the Ulrich. “It’s iconic. It’s become an identifying symbol for the museum, Wichita State and the city. It’s the most important piece of public art in Kansas.”
Miró Returns: Community Celebration
When: 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30
Where: Ulrich Museum of Art entrance plaza (17th Street entrance at Fairmount Street), Wichita State University, 1845 Fairmount
What: Block party with dance and music performances, hands-on art and refreshments to welcome home Joan Miró's "Personnages Oiseaux" mural
Information: www.ulrich.wichita.edu or 316-978-3664