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An interview with the Great Room murals’ lead conservator, Rachel Gilberti

Over the last few weeks, art conservators from John Canning & Co., an historical decoration and restoration company, have been busy at work in the Great Room. Their goal is to fully restore the four Great Room murals to pristine condition—not an easy task after what the art has been through.

Art conservators from John Canning & Co. have been busy for the last few weeks in efforts to fully restore the Great Room murals.

Rachel Gilberti, fine arts conservator and lead on the project, said her team has recently been working on removing an older layer of varnish from the murals before they will add a new one. Back in 2018, Gilberti’s team came in to perform emergency work on the murals to save them from further damage, due to the water that was used to extinguish the building fire. They were able to do so, but further restoration could not be done until the thick wall the murals are on had completely dried. Two years later, the wall is dry enough for full restoration efforts to take place!

Fine arts conservator Rachel Gilberti surveys the Agriculture mural, one of the more damaged murals.

Last week, we pulled Rachel away from removing varnish long enough to chat about the progress her team is making on the murals. She had some amazing insight for us, along with some interesting details about the murals that most people do not know.

Below, you can watch a short video segment of our interview with Rachel.

The art conservators use scissor lifts to reach all sections of the murals.

Note: Interview responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What was it like, seeing the murals right after the fire, to now, two years later?

Rachel Gilberti: I’m really happy with how they turned out, especially because of the things the murals went through beforehand. The fire itself didn’t cause much harm, but the water from the sprinkler system did. They were exposed to a lot of water damage. And the wall that the murals are on, believe it or not, is 14 inches wide so it soaked up quite a bit of water. And the type of stone that you have here in Kansas absorbs a lot of water naturally, so it took a long time for the walls to completely dry up. The paint layer actually separated itself from the plaster, and so we had to go through every crack we could visibly see on the wall and inject adhesive so that it stayed where it is supposed to stay.

The murals that were most affected, the agriculture and arts murals, those were consolidated several times, which is an unusual situation because normally we would start a project after the damage has been done, not while the damage is still occurring. I had no idea what the result was going to be at the end. But we’re back after two years and the murals are on the wall, they stayed safe, there is minimal blooming from the varnish we applied. So now we’re taking off that old varnish and will put on a new layer now that the wall is dry so that the murals won’t have a milky quality to them. I’m happy with them—they should come out really nice at the end.

Art conservator Tim Phebus works on removing an old layer of varnish from the Arts mural.

What is the biggest challenge with restoring the murals?

RG: Number one, we didn’t know how long it would take for the wall to dry. We also didn’t know how much damage the water would actually inflict on the murals. But we’re happy that it turned out alright in the end.

The white circles on the murals flag areas where the plaster has separated from the wall. These spaces will be filled with a special adhesive.

How long will restoring the murals take?

RG: We’re here for another month to work on these, and then we’ll start work on the “We Are the Dream” mural which might take another few weeks to a month. Once you get to this stage, things move along pretty fast. It’s the preemptive work beforehand that takes longer, the consolidation work.

What is your favorite part about working with historical buildings?

RG: I like to see the transformation because it’s like bringing the building back to its original, artistic conception. The artist for the murals considered colors and the scheme of the building itself when creating the art. If you look at the Home mural, [David] Overmyer actually reflects the Great Room windows onto the mural—you can see the diamond pattern of the windows on the mural. That’s a level of detail that most people wouldn’t notice from the floor.

Of the four murals, the Arts mural received the most water damage. However, Gilberti is confident that it will be back in pristine condition soon!

That’s really neat. Lastly, do you have a mural that is your favorite to work on?

RG: I like the Arts, but maybe I just sway that way because art is my thing. The instrument there and the color palette. I also like that Overmyer stylized his figures in 20’s style clothing and even their hairstyles. I find that interesting because not many artists focused on that time period. But I’ve been hearing that a lot of people like Agriculture too, everybody likes the moon!

We want to say a big thank you to Rachel and her team for graciously allowing us to disrupt their important work so we could chat with them and gather photo and video of the murals under restoration. We know how much it means to the K-State community to see these beautiful works of art again, and we along with you, simply cannot wait to see the final product!

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