Evansville mural from 1939 gets facelift

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Gina Duwe
Monday, July 28, 2014

EVANSVILLE--The large canvas hand painted in 1939 with the image of a log cabin among trees at one time hung as the theatrical backdrop in Evansville's centennial pageant.

Packed away for decades, the mural is being restored with plans to feature it again in a community pageant in 2016.

“It's a really impressive piece—more than 30 feet long, 10 feet tall, and the artwork on it is really exceptional,” said John Decker, a board member and past president of the Evansville Grove Society.

The Grove Society hired Len Lassandro of Madison, one of the best conservators in the country, to restore the mural thanks to a $6,400 grant from Questers International and Blackhawk Chapter 223 in Janesville, Decker said.

The mural was stored for years at the Rock County Historical Society until it returned to Evansville recently when the society was making space in its facilities.

Ethel Gibbs and her son, Robert, painted the backdrop as a representation of the first building erected by Evansville settlers in 1839.

Lassandro rated the mural in average to poor condition because several dozen newspapers were glued to the back of the canvas since its creation, he said.

“In my opinion, they probably tried to add some weight to the entire piece or make it a little more stiff,” he said. “It was totally unnecessary.”

The newspapers need to be scraped off without getting the canvas wet because the lignin, found in all wood-based paper, turns very acidic over time and weakens the linen fibers, he said.

Lassandro added linen fiber to close about 60 holes while working on the mural this month at J.C. McKenna Middle School.

If the canvas hadn't been restored, he guessed it would have deteriorated in the next 30 years. Now, he said, it will last many more lifetimes.  

“I'm glad they found this piece,” Lassandro said. “I really do think it's worth conserving.”

The mural provided the background for the pageant that retold events from the first 100 years of Evansville history--from pioneer days to World War I, Decker said. The Grove Society is working with Evansville Community Theatre to recreate that pageant and include more recent events from the city's history, he said.

The mural was used in public only three times—once for the Evansville pageant and twice when other communities borrowed it for the same purpose, Decker said.

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