You may remember a few years back when TVA, with the help of the BVI retirees group, funded the restoration of the magnificent mural at Norris Dam.
Fine arts conservator Mike Ruzga restored the artwork, painted on the wall in 1953 by TVA artist Robert Birdwell, to mint condition.
Ruzga recently went back to work on another Birdwell piece, a smaller mural placed in the Boone Dam Visitors Building in May 1955. This time, Mike’s job was not the gargantuan task of restoring a huge wall mural, riddled with drillholes and flaking paint. This time he had a much smaller assignment—cleaning off graffiti, repairing scratches and removing years of dirt.
He noted the difference such work makes.
“It’s amazing how, over time, small changes to the mural disrupts the composition,” Ruzga said. “Once cleaned and conserved, the colors and composition pull together, and reveal his original ideas, inviting one into the mural to see the finest details.”
This activity on the mural is the result of an ongoing project at Boone. Dam safety inspections discovered possible seepage at the earthen embankment of the dam in 2014, and TVA committed to fully remediate the issue. The resulting 7-year, multi-million construction project is now complete and, with the public facilities reopening on March 25, 2022, this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to refresh the mural.
When the Boone overlook originally opened in May 1955, the local newspaper reported that more than 4,000 people visited the first Sunday alone.
One of the first groups to see the painting was a group of second-graders. One remarked, “There’s Davy Crockett!” The public safety officer on-site proceeded to give the little chap a history lesson. The officer mentioned that Birdwell felt Boone Dam would be incomplete without a picture of its namesake, so he inserted Daniel Boone in the mural overlooking a frontier-era scene.
As the painting advances in time, the artist provided a representation of 1955-era TVA. It shows a modern field engineer overlooking construction activity—dams, fossil plants, and navigation and recreation scenes.
By all accounts, it is a wonderful work of public art. Measuring 3.5 by 12 feet, it hangs in the Boone overlook, where it has been stationed since 1955.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, TVA’s historian, Pat Ezzell, commissioned Ruzga to conduct a condition assessment of artwork currently housed in TVA’s facilities.
He noted in his assessment that the Boone mural had several areas of macro flaking paint and paint layer losses, graffiti scratches, tide line vertical drips and shallow gouges. While the work sounds fairly technical, it took Ruzga just three days in mid-April to get the mural looking as good as new.
“These pieces of public art are important—not only do they contribute to the historical significance of each facility, but they also tell TVA’s story visually,” Ezzell said.
She went on to say the works are important in their own right because of who painted them.
Birdwell, who attended high school in the Tri-Cities region, went on to earn a Fine Arts degree in 1950 from the University of Tennessee and went to work at TVA shortly thereafter. His many TVA murals and independent works are well known, and this particular painting gives observers an idea of the grandeur of upper east Tennessee and southwest Virginia.
TVA staff artist, Robert Birdwell, created striking murals for several TVA facilities in the 1950s. Learn more about Birdwell and his mural at Fort Patrick Henry Dam.
Birdwell's mural at the Norris Dam visitor center is a stunning vision of the Tennessee Valley. See before and after photos of its dramatic restoration and learn more about the conservation process.