In preparing Norris Dam for an influx of visitors during its 80th anniversary, TVA employees uncovered a beautiful—but very damaged—Robert Birdwell mural. Now efforts are underway to restore it.
JULY 20, 2018—An art conservator who can count a Rembrandt painting among his many restoration projects is now working to save a mural at Norris Dam. The severely damaged artwork was discovered behind a dated gold-colored shag rug bolted to the powerhouse lobby wall during preparations for the plant’s 80th anniversary celebration in 2016.
The mural—painted by TVA artist Robert Birdwell in the 1950s—tells the story of how the Tennessee River was tamed to serve the people of the Valley. The problem, however, was that thousands of flakes were either missing or peeling away from the painting, while more than a hundred half-dollar-sized bolt holes dotted Birdwell’s work.
Michael Ruzga, chief conservator and project manager of Fine Art Conservation Inc., was chosen to try to save the mural. Ruzga (pictured above) estimates it will take him and his team of skilled artists and chemists about 200 conservator days to restore the work to its original state.
“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, like potato chips on the wall. But after two days of testing, we were able to formulate a treatment plan with adhesives and techniques that would return the flexibility to the paint and allow us to lay the paint gently back onto the wall.”
Ruzga and his team’s techniques include filling each bolt hole with polyethylene plugs and painstakingly reattaching each tiny paint flake back to the mural. Ruzga has a box filled with flakes, and the task is like solving a 30-foot jigsaw puzzle.
When the team is finished, the mural will take command of the room again with all of its charm and beauty. “It’s wonderful to see the mural come alive again,” Ruzga says. “We want the conservation treatment to be secondary. The evidence of the restoration should be visible only under an infrared light.”
TVA Federal Preservation Officer and Senior Program Manager Pat Ezzell has spearheaded the restoration project since the beginning. She first learned of the mural through a picture sent to her by the facilities team who removed the dated rug from the wall.
“I was elated,” Ezzell says.
TVA Architect Janine Obenschain had a similar response to the discovery.
“I’ve been an architect since 1986. Of all the finds I’ve been a part of over the years, this one ranks number one,” Obenschain says. “I had only been with TVA for a few months when we found it. For me, it was such a great introduction to the history of TVA. It has been truly a privilege to be a part of this.”
The restoration is expected to be completed next month. For more information about the artist, Robert Birdwell, and his work click here.