Dehumidifiers whir inside the sealed room housing one of John Biggers’ murals in Third Ward. Fine Japanese tissue paper dots the mural where paint had begun to pop off, and damage is still evident in the ceiling above.
Though the historic artwork underwent treatment for damage suffered as a result of Hurricane Harvey, a full professional restoration job cannot be completed until enough funds are secured to first repair the roof of the building that houses the Biggers masterpiece.
“We’re praying again that some company will be able to help us,” said Charlotte Kelly Bryant, the founding president of the Blue Triangle Multi-Cultural Association, which owns the building housing the mural.
The Houston Endowment has provided an initial $258,000 to repair the building’s roof, but at least $200,000 more is needed to complete the restoration on the 1953, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education,” which is painted onto a wall inside the nonprofit’s headquarters.
In the aftermath of Harvey, rainwater seeped into a wall of the Blue Triangle Community Center, causing it to swell and in the process pop off the mural’s paint. Moisture collected in the mural’s room causing black mold to grow on the painting.
Staff from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts worked to stabilize the mural, partially covering the roof overhead, using dehumidifiers, and adding the Japanese tissue paper into the gaps formed by the popping off paint, said David Bomford, chairman of conservation at the museum.
Though no further damage is expected, Bomford said a full restoration plan is needed to preserve what he and other experts call one of Biggers’ largest masterpieces.
“It is one of the most important artworks in Houston,” Bomford said. “It kind of transcends monetary value.”
Some funding has been earmarked for the mural’s restoration. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Texas Historical Commission each provided $30,000 toward its permanent repair. The Kinder Foundation has given $100,000 for the mural’s restoration as well as the upkeep of the mural’s immediate environment.
Biggers, the prolific artist from North Carolina who started the art program at Texas Southern University in 1949, back when it was known as the Texas State University for Negroes, painted the mural one year after the founding of the Blue Triangle building, known then as the first branch of Houston’s YWCA.
Ten women of color purchased the lot’s city block in 1948 for $1,000, Bryant said. They built the community center that stands today through a capital campaign with the city.
The mural, which served as Biggers’ doctoral dissertation and features images of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley, was an opportunity to recognize these women’s work.
“He told me that he wanted to give [it] as a tribute to the Negro women,” Bryant said.
To Robert Proctor, co-director and chief painting conservator for Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston, the mural exemplifies Biggers’ “compositional ability to work across large space.”
Proctor, who has restored other Biggers’ paintings, noted that the artist’s unique brushstrokes and his attention to work surfaces make them some of the most difficult pieces of art to restore.
Biggers often kept a matte texture to his art’s surfaces to avoid creating a glare, Proctor said. He also tended to apply a sort of fresco technique, using lean paint that gave off a pastel quality. These details, incorporated in the Blue Triangle mural, would likely mean restoration will take several months.
Proctor added that much of Biggers’ signature, larger pieces can be found in public spaces with no protective covering as Biggers intended, making the art more accessible yet at greater risk to the elements.
“The artist’s intent of the painting is always something that guides us,” Proctor said. “His greatest intent was that his paintings were for the people.”
Biggers died in Houston in 2001 at age 76.
At Blue Triangle, Bryant would often show the mural to visiting children, hoping to inspire them by teaching them their past and pushing them to create a future for themselves.
While repairs are still underway, the community center remains open, though many of the activities for younger children have been postponed, Bryant said.
Bryant hopes to one day convert the mural room into an arts and education center.
For now, all she can do is hope more groups contribute to repairing the historically designated building so that work on the mural can fully begin.
“It’s going to happen,” Bryant said.