Over the summer, Kenneth Bé, Ford Center Paintings Conservator, spent a week in a little town in Kansas. Surrounded by the beauty of the Kansas plains, Kenneth worked to clean a mural that had already survived so much.
Salemsborg Lutheran Church as it looks today.
The Salemsborg Lutheran Church was originally built in 1869 as a dugout building with sod walls. The walls were soon replaced with stone, but the little dugout church was soon too small and was replaced by a wooden structure in 1872. By 1892, the church had grown so large, that yet another building was needed and a new frame structure was built with a spire that rose 150 feet. Swedish American painter, Carl Lotave was commissioned with painting a mural of the “Transfiguration” above the alter. The building was completed and dedicated in 1989.
The mural of the Transfiguration behind the altar of the church. Kenneth had to work on the scaffolding to reach the top of the painting.
Disaster literally struck on July 29, 1925 when the church was hit by lightning. As members tried to stop the fire from spreading, someone ran inside and cut the mural from the wall. The building was ultimately destroyed but the mural was saved. When the current brick building was completed in 1929, the “Transfiguration” was again placed above the altar. In the 1950s, two smaller paintings were added to the sides.
To mark the church’s 150th anniversary, the church committee embarked on the project to have the center painting cleaned to remove years of soot, dust and even bird droppings.
The figure of Christ during treatment. Not the contrast between the brighter blue of the cleaned side on the right.
Climbing over scaffolding, Kenneth cleaned the mural using various solutions to remove the soot and grime. Applications were done by both sponges and bristle brush. He avoided using cotton because the rough texture of the paint surface could catch cotton fibers.
The cleaning revealed a brighter, bluer sky and especially brought out the light-colored highlights on the figures and drapery. Bird droppings and drip marks around Christ’s head and halo were removed to allow the illumination and aura of this area of the painting to contrast with the darker areas of the painting.
Details of the mural before (left) and after (right) treatment.