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Unfinished but Not Unloved : Conservation Efforts Begin on Alfredo Ramos Martinez's Last Mural, Which Shines in Scripps College's Garden

November 29, 1994|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

The Margaret Fowler Memorial Garden at Scripps College in Claremont is one of Southern California's least-celebrated but best-loved hideaways. Scripps students and alumnae know the walled retreat--with its cloisters, central pool, giant wisteria, tiny chapel and expansive mural--as the most beautiful place on an idyllic campus. Art aficionados revere the garden as the site of Mexican painter Alfredo Ramos Martinez's last work, a 100-foot, nine-panel depiction of flower vendors, which was left unfinished at his death in 1946. The other people most likely to be familiar with the garden are couples who have been married there.

But despite the garden's obscurity, its artistic centerpiece has not been forgotten. Time, the elements and overgrown plants have taken a toll on the mural, but a professional conservation effort is now under way to ensure the artwork's future. The college has secured a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, raised about $15,000 in private donations and enlisted a team of conservators, most of whom are employed by local museums and have taken on the mural as a free-lance, weekend assignment.

Although the conservators are being paid for their work, they are also engaged in a labor of love. "It's a wonderful project," says Jerry Podany, the J. Paul Getty Museum's antiquities conservator, who is coordinating the work with Eduardo Sanchez, a Getty colleague.

The mural has special significance for the two men, who got to know it as students at the Claremont Graduate School. A veteran of mural restoration at the Claremont Colleges, Sanchez also has worked on Pomona College's murals by Jose Clemente Orozco and Rico Lebrun.

But the Ramos Martinez job has more going for it than sentimental attachment, according to the conservators. "The college is taking this seriously and they are doing it the right way," Podany says. Instead of hiring specialists to patch holes and touch up paint, Scripps has commissioned them to determine the cause of problems and recommend a course of action that will prolong the mural's life.

"The first step was to get a good, solid study of the mural," says Mary MacNaughton, an art history professor and director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps. Although people who return to the campus after a long absence often comment on how they think the mural has changed, the college has had no scientific basis for measuring its condition, she says.

To do a thorough analysis, it was necessary to study the mural's environment as well as the artwork itself, Podany says. And the entire effort had to be documented so that the college would have a record for future reference.

Some aspects of the environment are facts of life, such as extreme changes in humidity--as much as 90% to 5% in a six-hour period. And indeed the mural has withstood these cycles quite well, Podany says.

Other climatic conditions have caused serious damage, but they have been fixed. The major offender was water. Although the mural is protected by a slanted roof, wind would blow rain through a gap under the roof and it would trickle down the painted stucco wall. Now a flashing has been added to the roof so that rain is channeled away from the mural. A nearby air-conditioning unit raised the humidity on one section of the mural and caused the mural's surface to loosen, but the unit has been moved.

The documentation effort included taking careful photographs of each of the mural's panels at the same distance and under the same light conditions. Podany and Sanchez have scanned these photographs into a computer, created line drawings of each panel and plotted the various kinds of damage--water, salt, delamination, cracks, patches and graffiti--in a color-coded system. Prints of these images then serve as portable reference guides.

John Twilley, a conservator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will analyze the painting materials used by Ramos Martinez. As a final step, Tatyana Thompson, an independent painting conservator who is assessing the condition of the painting (and a coating applied to parts of the mural after the artist's death), will fill in missing areas of paint. No paint will be added to areas that were left incomplete.

The conservators contend that the mural's incomplete state makes for an unusually interesting and informative project because they can easily see how the artist worked. Although some art historians have assumed that Ramos Martinez painted heavy outlines around the unfinished figures as a quick way of indicating his intentions when he became ill and feared he might not be able to complete the work, the conservators dispute that. The various panels--some portraying monumental heads of women and scenes of flower vendors in outline, others partly or fully painted--appear to be an accurate record of his method, they say.

The artwork is one of the few remaining records of Ramos Martinez's life in Southern California. Although his gentle portrayals of Indian peasants lacked the political punch of Mexico's better-known muralists, Ramos Martinez has a secure place in the history of art. After a sojourn in Paris, he returned to his native Mexico and became a prominent educator and proponent of modern art. He directed Mexico City's School of Fine Art from 1913 to 1928 and founded the Open Air Schools of Art for Mexican youth.

His infant daughter Maria's crippling bone disease brought the family to Los Angeles in 1929. Ramos Martinez found considerable appreciation for his work in Southern California, where he frequently exhibited his work and executed mural commissions for Hollywood personalities. Millard Sheets, who founded Scripps' art department, is credited with bringing Ramos Martinez to Claremont for a series of exhibitions that led to the mural commission.

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