Mosaic Conservation, Mural Conservation:

Art Conservators often perform tests before beginning a large project. Tests might involve creating mock-ups before treatment, cleaning small areas on an easel painting, or in some instances,  removing a section of the artwork. The latter approach was required for a Pittsburgh artwork for the possible relocation and treatment of a mosaic mural by the late artist Virgil Cantini.

The mural, which was completed in 1964, is comprised of twenty-eight sections lining the interior of a tunnel under Bigelow Boulevard.  Each panel features an abstract, colorful array of mosaic tiles embedded in concrete, and each with a different configuration and shape. In the artist’s own words, “…I want the tunnel to be a gallery, some place to go through rather than stay out from. It is not designed to stop you… it is meant to be something you look at while you are walking along”. For decades, the artwork has watched over pedestrians making their way from Chatham Street and Seventh Avenue. Now the tunnel is scheduled for demolition, meaning that if the mosaic mural is not removed, it may be lost forever. Thankfully steps to save the mosaic mural have been taken, which you can read more about here as well as SAVE THE Virgil CANTINI MOSAIC.

One of the steps involves some invasive, but necessary, exploration to see if the mural can be removed from its site location. This past week Stone Sculpture and Architectural Features Conservator Marcin Pikus  assisted by Objects Conservator Christina L. Simms traveled to Pittsburgh to assess and perform a partial removal of a mural section. It began with numbering the sections and taking high resolution images. If and when the artwork is removed, the exact placement of the individual sections and how they relate to one another is critical component in preserving the mural.

McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory has performed a number of mosaic mural conservation treatments and mosaic mural removal and relocation projects. Two large mosaics by Conrad Albrizio including a mosaic artwork in New Orleans, Louisiana and another in Mobile, Alabama,  were removed from concrete walls. Another notable project was the removal, restoration, and relocation of Romare Bearden’s mural Pittsburgh Recollections. Sometimes it is good news, and sometimes not. The Cantini mosaic mural  suffered some tile loss, cracks in the concrete were present, and there was a general layer of soiling, but overall the artwork is in good condition.

Good news, so far.

After taking before treatment images, Conservator Pikus carefully carved around a mural section. He then chiseled out the loose stone, revealing how the artwork was attached to the wall. Applying gentle pressure, Conservator Pikus and Simms then attempted to remove to the mural section. Could we do it? The panel wiggled slightly.  With a little more tapping and more pressure, the panel was freed from the wall for the first time since the 1960s, without losing even one tile- a success!

Several other panels were explored too to ensure that the mounting technique was the same throughout the piece. This was done by drilling and chiseling access holes in areas which attachment points were anticipated. The removed panel was crated and moved to an off-site facility for safekeeping. It appeared that while, inevitably the removal process would be complicated and involved, it is possible to save the mural with the current understanding of the condition and mounting technique.  For now, large public art conservation projects such as this can be complicated, requiring careful consideration with all parties involved.

Virgil Cantini is a decorated artist and lived what could be considered the American Dream. Cantini was an Italian-born immigrant who traveled to the United States in his youth. He received a football scholarship for college, even earning All-America status. He also served in World War II during his college years. He completed his studies at the now Carnegie Mellon Institute. He then went onto complete his Master’s at the University of Pittsburgh where then taught for nearly four decades.

Though one can visit the tunnel near Chatham Street anytime, requests for a free tour is also available.