When a heavily damaged mural by Robert Birdwell was discovered at Norris Dam in 2016, it was unclear whether the painting could be saved. It could, and it was, in an amazing process that restored the work of art to its former glory.
It’s not too often that you discover something magical and hidden right in under your nose, but that’s just what happened at Norris Dam when—during a spiff-up for the plant’s 80th anniversary back in 2016—workers took a big piece of carpet-covered plywood off the wall in the lobby and uncovered a Robert Birdwell mural.
Birdwell—a noted abstract impressionist and TVA staff painter in the 50s, from nearby Knoxville—had, in 1956, laid down a stunning vision of the Tennessee Valley. He depicted the watershed, the dams, the new innovations of fossil plants and nuclear energy. He showed the people of the Valley, going about life and commerce, as well as some of the Valley’s natural beauty, depicting TVA’s missions of economic development and environmental stewardship. The 30 x 10 piece was sweeping in its scope, and breathtaking in its beauty.
It was also falling to pieces. Literally.
Water damage had caused the mural to flake, and badly—creating some areas that were badly damaged, and even some areas where the paint had flaked to the floor or was just gone. This was why it was covered up with plywood in the 1970s—creating 120 bolt holes in the process. The uncovered treasure was badly in need of professional help. TVA agreed to partner with its retiree organization Bicentennial Volunteers Inc. (a.k.a. BVI) to fund restoration of this newly found treasure. But could it be saved? And if so, by who?
Mike Ruzga, turns out, was the man for the job. Director of Fine Arts Conservation Inc. in Cincinnati, Oh., for twenty years and a conservator for thirty, Ruzga had many such projects under his belt—including the restoration of works by Rembrandt, Renoir and Thomas Hart Benton—and was well equipped to deal with the flaking, which he classified using such terms as bloomed, powder, bubble and potato chipped.
“At first glance, it was pretty hard to tell if the work was conservable,” Ruzga says. “In the state that it was, the paint was extremely brittle—you couldn’t even walk by without flakes falling off. It was one of the more damaged pieces of art I’d ever run across—with the flaking and holes—certainly in terms of its scale.”
But after two days of testing, Ruzga was able to formulate a treatment plan with adhesives and techniques that would return the flexibility to the paint and allow them to lay the paint gently back onto the wall. Over the course of 200 conservator days,
his team of artists and chemists painstakingly adhered and coated each flake, waited patiently for them to soften, then pieced them back together like a puzzle—including the pieces found on the floor. “We collected the flakes on the floor
in three-foot increments, and labeled a box with three-foot increments and laid the pieces into a box,” Ruzga says. “This helped us place them more accurately on the wall.”
They carefully filled in the bolt holes and smoothed them with a tool of their own devising, so as to get the thinnest surface match possible. Then they filled in the blanked-out spaces using a 1956 black and white archival photograph from the National Archives and specially mixed Golden® MSA conservation paints to match the soft pastel colors contemporaneous to the original painting. “We created about 60 colors in containers and five palettes of mixed paints,” says Ruzga.
Finally they carefully cleaned the entire painting—filthy with the dust and grime of more than 60 years—to reveal its original luminosity.
The finished product, according to TVA historian Pat Ezzell—who was among the first to see the damaged painting after it had been uncovered and who worked on efforts to find a conservator to restore it—was literally breathtaking. “I had been to Norris many times during the restoration process, but there were two 10-foot scaffolds there they whole time, and it wasn’t until they were taken away at the end that you could see how far that work of art had come. When we set out, we weren’t sure we could find a person who could restore the painting to its former glory—and we found that person.”
From Ruzga’s perspective, the difference was night and day—and the result of painstaking labor. He compares the work to running a marathon, and notes that every one of the painting’s 43,200 square inches was gone over at least twice, and some areas as many as five times. It was worth it, he says.
“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the mural as a piece of commemorative art,” Ruzga says. “It really reflects the beginnings of TVA and Norris, and was done as part of the dam’s 20th anniversary by an important regional artist. And even though so many holes were drilled in it, worse things could have happened—it could have been painted over, as so many murals often are. The plywood actually preserved the painting so that we could come back in and fix it. It’s amazing all the fine conservation and support that went into breathing life back into the mural.”
Though some of the aspects of the mural seem antiquated—such as a man selling tobacco packs in the lower left-hand corner—others are just as relevant to TVA today as they were in 1953…or 1933.
“It’s incredible to see that painting and the story it tells about TVA—everything from navigation to dams for flood control to recreation to affordable electricity,” says Ezzell. “You look at it, and you can really fell the improvement in the Valley. He really gets our mission of service across. And that continues today through the three Es…energy, environmental stewardship and economic development.”
NOTE: There are many Robert Birdwell murals in TVA facilities. Some are known—such as paintings at Norris, Ft. Patrick Henry, Boone, Hiwassee and South Holston dams, as well as at the Kingston, John Sevier, Colbert and Shawnee fossil plants—whereas others are not. If you know of a hidden Birdwell in a TVA facility near you, contact TVA historian Pat Ezzell at [email protected].