Archive for Thursday, November 18, 2004

Conservationist restores Ag Hall Farmland Mural to former glory

November 18, 2004

Just more than two months ago, the Farmland Mural at the National Agricultural Hall of Fame didn't look like much. Frederick James' 1956 work had been cut into four sections for the move from the former Farmland headquarters, and much of the frame and back of the work was damaged.

The average observer may have assumed incorrectly that the piece was destined for a Dumpster. Conservationist Peggy Van Witt, however, thought differently. She knew all the work needed was an artist's touch before it was ready to grace the gallery walls.

"There is always a hill you have to get over," she said. "Once the reconstruction was done and I could begin the painting, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief."

So for nearly eight weeks Van Witt toiled in her self-described labor of love. She has been undertaking all types of projects, everything from museum pieces to "over the couch art" for years. The challenge with the piece was its size - it weighs as much as several pool tables - and its "C" shape.

Thus, Van Witt began the slow process of restoration. She had to work from the top step of a ladder and she had to lay on the dusty floor and try not to stare into the Ag Hall's overhead light as she mirrored James' strokes a half century after his paint brush last touched the canvas.

Earlier this month, Van Witt completed the task. As for the last stroke, it was the nearly anticlimactic task of touching up a cow's eye.

Art conservationist Peggy Van Witt matches up the Farmland Mural's canvass  last month. The mural was cut into sections in preparation for the move to its new home.

Art conservationist Peggy Van Witt matches up the Farmland Mural's canvass last month. The mural was cut into sections in preparation for the move to its new home.

Now that her work is finished, save for a checkup sometime in the next month or so to see how the work reacts to climate and light, she can take some satisfaction in knowing she helped revive the work.

"It must be like a construction worker who drives over a bridge he built," she said. "It's that 'I helped build that' feeling."

The piece still needs a few housekeeping touches before it will be truly "gallery ready." A frame will be added before a reception next spring to unofficially kick off the unveiling of the restored piece.

While it was Van Witt who did the hard work, Ag Hall director Cathi Hahnner knows that a few others made the project a reality. A private donor joined Commercial State Bank in donating the money required to undertake the project. Without the help, Hahner said, the project would not have happened.

"Without their help, we probably would not have been able to do the conservation," she said. "It just would not have been a reality now."

As far as bank officials are concerned, the chance to help out with the project means more than just reviving a work of art, which in itself would be noteworthy.

"We have been big supporters of the Ag Hall," said bank president Larry Ellington.

The Ag Hall is located just north of the interchange of I-70 and Kansas Highway 7 in Bonner Springs.

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