April 4, 1996 Vol. 25 No. 28

Manuel W. Theodore, a professional conservator of paintings, works to repair and restore
the "Harvest Songs" murals in his studio in Baltimore. The murals have been removed
from the Burrowes Building on the University Park Campus and will be rehung
later this semester when the work is complete.
Photo: Courtesy of Manuel W. Theodore

Biggers murals being preserved

By Paul A. BlaumWho's repairing them?
Public InformationAbout John T. Biggers

The murals "Harvest Songs," which flank the central entrance to Burrowes Building on the University Park Campus, can make even casual passersby stop in their tracks and take note. In their stark, gaunt simplicity, the murals present an excellent case for education. They show that with knowledge, humans have the potential for a productive and joyful life; without it, humanity is doomed to poverty, strife and a life "with empty bags."

The murals that have been in place for nearly five decades, are now receiving a facelift from Manuel W. Theodore, a professional conservator of paintings and icons from Baltimore. The murals have been removed from Burrowes Building and the intricate work in reconstructing them has been under way for some time.

The story behind the individual murals in the Harvest collection -- "Days of the Harvest" and "Night of the Poor" -- is as fascinating as the murals themselves. They were painted in 1947 by Penn State student John Thomas Biggers, an African American destined to become one of the premiere American mural artists. Poet Maya Angelou has written of him, "His pen and pencil and brush take us without faltering into the individual personal world where each of us lives privately."

Dr. Biggers, who received his B.S. and M.Ed. degrees in art education from Penn State in 1948, crafted the two murals in the foyer of Burrowes Building, as well as "The Sharecroppers" mural now hanging in the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, while a student.

"Biggers painted his murals on a canvas made of very thin fabric that was originally placed on a stretcher and attached to the wall with thumbtacks," Mr. Theodore said. "The canvas is fragile and because of its location, vulnerable to cold and humidity. It's been repaired before."

Mr. Theodore is removing dust, water stains and food stains from the canvas and repairing small tears in it that have been caused in part by vandals. Once the murals are rehung later this semester in Burrowes Building, they will be protected by the installation of an ultraviolet light-reducing panel in the window above the doors. In addition, acrylic panels will be placed over the murals to shield them from temperature extremes and moisture from the opening and closing the doors.

"As an educator and a museum curator, these murals hold great significance," Glenn Willumson, curator of the collection for the Palmer Museum of Art, said. "As a curator, these murals are important because they represent the early works of one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Any artist's earliest works are subject to the ravages of time."

Dr. Willumson points to John Biggers recent retrospective exhibition at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts as confirmation of his lofty status in the art world.

"Here is someone for whom, when he painted these murals, it probably never occurred to him that he would have a major retrospective at a large museum later in life," Dr. Willumson said. "As an educator, it's easy to point to John Biggers as an example of what perseverance and vision can accomplish. His pictures give hope that if you persevere, you can in fact succeed."

Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts -- the current home for the murals, said the pieces are among the college's most significant treasures.

"Their care is an important responsibility," she said. "Dr. Biggers' achievements while a student at the University are an impressive example of the contributions possible by people at the earliest stages of their careers. These paintings are truly transcendent monuments of black culture and history that speak to all."

The conservation of the murals was supported by the College of the Liberal Arts and the Office of Physical Plant.

-- Lisa Rosellini contributed to this story.

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This page was created by Annemarie Mountz.
Last updated April 3, 1996.