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Restoring The Miró Mosaic Mural: A Look Behind The Scenes

The iconic Joan Miró mural "Personnages Oiseaux" is returning to the face of the Ulrich Museum of Art and will reclaim its place as one of the most recognizable icons on the Wichita State University campus. For almost a decade, an art conservation company has been working to stabilize the outdoor mosaic while retaining the integrity of the original piece.

Credit Abigail Beckman / KMUW
Wooden pallets hold the panels that make up Joan Miró's iconic mural. By the end of October, all 80 of the panels will be back home on the south wall of the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State University.

Inside the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State, a handful of poster-sized wooden pallets rest against the wall. Inside each one is a piece of a priceless mosaic mural taken down in 2011 because of deterioration. Marianne Russell-Marti, her husband and their crew have been working for years to restore and conserve the mural at their workshop in Missouri.

And their return at the Ulrich is the final step.

"The panels are all numbered in their consecutive order on the mural," Russell-Marti says. "So, they’ve just finished putting up panel number one, and now they’re going to put the next one up above it.”

Members of Russell-Marti's crew load up the next panel, which happens to be panel number two.

Credit Abigail Beckman / KMUW
Marianne Russell-Marti, her husband and their crew worked for nearly a decade to restore the mural. Their research included a three-year pilot study.

The large-scale outdoor mural is the only one of its kind. The work was designed by distinguished artist Joan Miró, a Spanish painter, sculptor and ceramicist. More than 40 years ago, Miró was asked to create a piece of art to be translated into the colossal mosaic mural on the south side of the Ulrich.

"So he made a lovely painting called 'Personnages Oiseaux.' It’s French for 'bird people,'” Russell-Marti says. "And it’s a beautiful, whimsical design of large, sort of animal-like shapes that kind of float across space.”

The work has no perspective or horizon, just floating forms unrestricted by gravity, drawn with a sharp black line. The glass pieces shine and reflect like scales on a fish. There's red, blue, green, orange and a tiny bit of yellow.

Credit Abigail Beckman / KMUW
A small printed version of Miró's painting, broken into the grid that was used to design and hang the mural. The red x's show the progress of Russell-Marti and her team as they work to reinstall the mural on the Ulrich Museum.

“They’re just these beautiful colors and sort of splatter paint on the canvas,” Russell-Marti says.

When the painting was commissioned, Miró had one request. The mural had to be constructed by a world-renowned stained glass company thousands of miles away in France.

“Joan Miró stipulated that Ateliers Loire in Chartres, France, would be the ones to turn it into a mosaic," Russell-Marti says. "And that actually posed a challenge for Ateliers Loire, who were going to make a 26-foot-high by 52-foot-wide mosaic in France that was going to be shipped and assembled in America.”

It was decided that the back of the mural would be marine-grade particle board. The glass and marble tiles, called tesserae, would be secured with epoxy mixed with stone dust so the work would like a traditional mosaic.

The 180-pound panels would then be individually mounted on a steel frame and arranged on the second story wall of the Ulrich Museum like a really big, and essentially priceless, glistening puzzle.

Russell-Marti says that while they were carefully chosen, those very materials are what led to problems of sustainability within the mural. She says the deep problems in the mural's stability were discovered during routine maintenance.

Credit Courtesy photos
A close-up of the mural shows missing tesserae. Marianne Russell-Marti says the deeper problems within the murals stability were discovered during routine maintenance of the falling tiles.

“We were removing some loose tesserae and actually all of the epoxy came off with it. There was a hole in the particle board," she explains. "It was like opening a box of pipe tobacco. It was punkie and wet and and that was when we realized that we had a bigger problem because the actual substrate that these are mounted on is deteriorating."  

So, in 2011 the mosaic panels were taken down for repairs, and another work of art was put in the mural's place. In the meantime, Russell-Marti and her team were testing different epoxies and backings to replace the original materials. But how could they do that without changing the integrity, the exact placement of the glass and marble tesserae?

They needed something Russell-Marti calls a “facing material.”

Credit Abigail Beckman / KMUW
A sample piece of the gelatin facing that Russell-Marti Conservation Services used to preserve the integrity of the mural while removing the original epoxy and particle board backing.

"[It had to be] something that you would apply to the front, that would allow you to flip the panels over on their face and then remove the particle board from the back,” she says.

Marianne Russell-Marti says her husband, Bob, came up with the solution: a gelatin mold that allowed the team to flip the panels over and scrape off the backing and epoxy.

“After we ground down just to the glass surface, then you have to use scalpels and small blades to work it off by hand,” she says.

Once the original backing and epoxy were replaced, the glass and marble tesserae were cleaned, and the panels were taken back to Wichita State’s campus.

In July, the re-mounting process began using the same numbered grid that Ateliers Loire, the French glass company, designated 40 years ago.

A community celebration for the newly restored Miró mural is planned for Oct. 30.


Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.