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Mural restoration

Repairs to artwork and Education building to wrap up late September

Campus and Community

By Moira Baird

A familiar piece of art on Memorial’s St. John’s campus will be unveiled again this month.

That’s when restoration of the massive, abstract mural above the entrance to the Education building is expected to be complete.

Image taken on St. John’s campus by Chris Hammond in August 2013.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Work on the 51-year-old mural by Quebec artist Maurice Savoie includes replacing missing pieces, repairing cracks and scrubbing rebar rust, grime and lichen growth from the 1,200-square-foot concrete surface.

Conservation Solutions Inc. (CSI), which specializes in heritage preservation of buildings, sculptures and monuments, began work in mid-August.

“Once they finish their work at the end of September, the scaffolding can come down,” said Keith Bowden, director of engineering and construction with Memorial’s Facilities Management.

There’s protection in place so people can still come and go from the building.”

Welcome improvements

Scaffolding is expected to be removed from the entrance by October.

Bowden says CSI will return later in October to waterproof the mural, a task that will take a couple of days to complete and won’t require scaffolding to be installed again.

Repairs are also underway to a pair of structural columns on either side of the building’s main entrance. That work will wrap up at the same same as the mural restoration.

Mr. Bowden expects the cost of the repairs will be in the $225,000 range.

The ceramicist

The abstract mural is a familiar sight to anyone on the St. John’s campus and to drivers stopped at the Prince Phillip Drive-Westerland Road intersection.

A ceramicist and sculptor who died in 2013, Mr. Savoie produced a number of public murals in St. John’s and throughout Canada, such as a terracotta and ceramic mural at the McGill Metro station and a screen installation at the Quebec pavilion during Expo 67. He primarily worked in clay.

“That was his main medium,” said Kelly Caldwell, CSI’s conservator and project manager.

On its website, CSI notes the Memorial mural “incorporates biomorphic forms and references to nature depicted in raised and incised sculptural forms, colored gravel and splashes of pigment.”

Biomorphic forms are abstract rounded shapes based on those found in nature.

“The abstract style is very similar to his other work and also very reminiscent of the 1960s,” said Mr. Caldwell.

Concrete falling

Installed in 1966 as the Education building was completed, Mr. Bowden says the mural has stood the test of time until recently. Last year, pieces of concrete started dropping off. As a safety measure, temporary wooden shelters were installed around the main doors.

Repairs to the education building include the mural by Quebec artist Maurice Savoie and structural columns.
Photo: Submitted

“We couldn’t go through another winter with that potential. We get freeze-thaw cycles and water gets at the rebar, freezes and the rust expands and the concrete pops off,” he said. “We had to do something to stabilize it — either take it down or fix it.”

To track down companies with experience in art restoration, Mr. Bowden got in touch with Heritage Canada.

“This one was interesting. It took a bit of digging to find how to tackle this.”

The job went to CSI, which has an office in Ottawa, where it recently completed a four-year project managing the stabilization, repair and cleaning of the West Block parliamentary building’s exterior masonry. The company also did conservation work on the National War Memorial and restoration of a ceiling mosaic in the Wellington building.

Repairs in situ

CSI assessed the Memorial mural in the spring, provided recommendations and later determined the repairs could be done in situ rather than by removing the artwork from the building. They determined that the anchors that were put in place are in good shape.

Then, one of CSI’s first tasks was to determine how the mural was created to produce replicas of the missing sections.

“That’s within our conservation field — not just what does it look like, but how is it made, what is it made with,” said Mr. Caldwell. “So when we do repairs, it’s with the best colour match and the best material that’s going to be compatible.”

The mural was created in 12 concrete panels, with each one spanning roughly 100 square feet.

“Our understanding is these were made in a mould face down,” said Mr. Caldwell. “The coloured mortar was added into the mould first and then the concrete mortar was then pressed into the mould and allowed to set and then applied to the backing concrete.”

The restoration

As the work continues, CSI is carrying out a variety of tasks to repair the aging concrete, stabilize the rusting rebar and restore the mural’s fading colours.

“We clean out around the exposed areas of rebar, removing any failed material and any of the rust on the rebar,” said Mr. Caldwell. “We’re coating it with a primer type of material that stabilizes the rust and allows us to put brand new repairs over the top of it.”

Using customized cement mortar to recreate the mural details, CSI is replacing damaged or missing pieces. They’ll also remove lichen, algae, debris and car exhaust that have settled on the mural’s surface — dulling the dark red and green pigments in the concrete.

“Where there are areas of loss, we will artistically reapply the pigmented mortars. It’s not actually a paint, it’s a pigmented mortar,” said Mr. Caldwell. “The cleaning will also brighten up those colours.”

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