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Science in the Service of Art : Chemistry Professor Restores Mural at Mission San Gabriel

August 02, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

At first, only Hendrik Keyzer could see the eyes of Jesus on a wall at Mission San Gabriel.

Then only Keyzer could perceive the face, then finally the faint outlines of a mural from which the eyes peered--a triptych that had vanished from sight so long ago that only a few old people remembered it.

Now the mural is reappearing, this time with a profusion of colors and added symbolism unique to the man who could see what no one else saw.

Keyzer began restoring the mural more than two years ago and regards his work as a way of blending his talent as an artist with his more immediate vocation as a chemist and teacher.

As an artist, Keyzer, 55, is doing his largest and most important work at the mission.

As a scientist and teacher at Cal State Los Angeles, he is this year's California State Universities Outstanding Professor, one of two teachers chosen from among more than 20,000 faculty members in the 19 universities in the state system.

According to the nomination information compiled by his colleagues, Keyzer specializes in physical and analytical chemistry, has written numerous textbooks and made innovations in laboratory techniques.

Survived Prison Camp

Described as a humanist by colleagues who nominated him for the CSU award, Keyzer believes that this quality came from the suffering he endured for more than three years during his teens when he was held in a prison camp in his native Indonesia during World War II.

Because of the creative processes involved, Keyzer thinks his talents and occupations are interconnected.

"Art and science are aspects of the same thing," he said. "They're merely facets of the same jewel."

Keyzer has long attended Mass at the mission in the City of San Gabriel.

He began the mural restoration more than two years ago when he and the mission pastor, Father Arnold Gonzalez, stood looking at a deteriorated wall of the mission's old winery that faces the Camposanto, a garden and tiny cemetery within the mission complex.

"When I suggested that I restore the painting, Father Gonzalez said, 'What painting?' " Keyzer recalled.

The eyes of Jesus were barely discernible, there was a vague outline of his face, and the wall bore a few etchings that showed what once had been a 16-foot-wide fresco.

Keyzer volunteered to undertake the restoration, he said, "because it was like climbing the Himalayas. It would be my first opportunity to work in public, on a relatively large scale, and to apply my expertise in science to restoration."

Keyzer, whose father was an artist, began painting as a child. His work has been exhibited in Australia and Southern California.

"I didn't even know who he was, other than a Cal State professor," Gonzalez recalled. "I didn't imagine that he was prepared to do this kind of work."

In something of an act of faith between them, Keyzer signed a two-year agreement to restore the painting at his own expense, and Gonzalez renewed the agreement six months ago when weather delayed the work.

Nearly Finished

Keyzer hopes to have the mural finished next month, in tribute to the Pope's visit to Southern California and the possible beatification of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions in the 1700s.

Gonzalez told Keyzer: "You are making history, just as much as Father Serra and company."

For the first seven months he and his daughter, Catherine, traced the fresco markings onto sheets of acetate, then transferred them to paper, photographing and piecing patterns together to retain the mural's authenticity.

Thinking they were resurrecting a priceless antiquity, they found instead traces of clothes and artifacts of the 1930s, and eventually discovered that the muralist was a man named Buckley McGurrin, who had painted it hurriedly in 1939. McGurrin had used inferior materials that faded in a few years.

"By then it was too late to stop," said Keyzer, who clearly enjoys talking about his project to every interested passer-by.

Using a little artistic license, Keyzer removed what appeared to be a child's baseball cap, thinned some fat bodies and lavished religious and historical symbols throughout the three scenes, while adhering to the original design as much as possible.

"I must have read all the literature in the whole world on this stuff," he said, pointing out scepters, stars, differing halos, the moon and snake at the Virgin Mary's feet, pre-Christian symbols surrounding the Archangel Gabriel, for whom the mission is named, and even added depictions of the seven saints for whom Keyzer's children are named.

Chemistry and Art

"I'm trying to sneak in a little immortality here," he said.

Keyzer's reconciliation of art and science appears most vividly in his arrangement of colors.

After analyzing the fresco's surface, he applied a chemical compound that forms a bond with the stucco to extend the life of the mural, he said. "I believe this is the first use of this material in a fresco."

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