Abernethy School mural emerges after 50 years under paint
Funding is falling into place to restore Abernethy School's depression-era artwork that has been hidden in plain sight for more than 50 years. The school is just north of S.E. Division and 14th, at the south end of Ladd's Addition.
The efforts by Portland's Heritage Conservation Group and the Abernethy Elementary School PTA to fund the $71,274 restoration project for artist Erich Lamade's 1940 "Pageant of Oregon History" mural on four walls of Abernethy School's library got a boost late last year from a $20,000 Oregon Heritage Commission grant. It was the largest single contribution to the project, matching $20,000 in PTA funds, which include a $15,000 planning grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and $5,000 from the Autzen Foundation.
Early this year, Heritage Conservation Group and the PTA launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise more money. Plans are still on the drawing board, and Nina Olsson, President of Heritage Conservation Group, says the grassroots effort could focus on the artwork's place in history and its connection to today's education.
"The project has relevance beyond the Abernethy School community, because of the significance of the artist and mural in the historical context of Oregon 20th Century art, and above all the subject matter, that reaches into every elementary school curriculum statewide," Olsson says. "It is an incredible cultural heritage asset for all Oregonians."
History on four walls
For the past ten years, Olsson and others have worked to uncover Lamade's mural, hidden beginning in the mid-1950s under at least six layers of interior paint. The painstaking work of removing the paint and restoring the mural costs thousands and will take at least two summers to complete (work can't be done during the school year).
Lamade painted the mural as part of a Works Progress Administration commission in the 1930s and 1940s. The WPA's Federal Project Number One employed artists, writers, musicians, and actors during the difficult years of The Great Depression. Artists like Lamade were commissioned by the WPA to paint and create art for public buildings across the nation.
Lamade, who lived in the Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier and was influenced by nature, took several WPA commissions in the Portland area and other parts of the state. He joined artists John Ballator and Louis Bunce to paint the 1936 mural "Early History of St. Johns" in the St. Johns Post Office. He also painted another mural in the Grants Pass Post Office and created a mantle wood carving for Timberline Lodge's dining room.
Lamade's "Pageant of Oregon History" at Abernethy School included complex and chronological details of the state's history. Between the mid-1950s and 2007, the mural could be seen only in black and white photographs. Ten years ago, Olsson carefully cleaned a 12-inch square of the school's wall, revealing the intact mural, and touching off a campaign to restore the artwork.
Olsson will begin this summer to restore pieces of the 300-square-foot mural on the classroom's southeast and south walls, using cleaning and restoration processes developed through Portland State University's Regional Laboratory for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation. More work would be done in the summer of 2019.
The ambitious project is "unprecedented in state history", Olsson says. "It is the location of the mural within an elementary school, and its unique subject matter of Oregon history – so relevant to fourth- and fifth-grade curricula – that makes the project even more compelling. Through the interpretation and dissemination of the restored mural, the mural will become an invaluable teaching tool."
Portland historian Chet Orloff, who supports the restoration project, agreed that it would have an impact on elementary school students. Orloff says it is "quite difficult to understand how such an inspiring artwork could have been covered with wall paint so long ago." Restoring it will provide lessons not only in the state's history for the school's students, but it will also connect them to work by WPA artists during one of the nation's most difficult historic periods, he says.
"Even though the kids, who will be privileged to see it every day, might not fully appreciate what they are seeing, over the years spent at the school they will absorb the image and remember it," Orloff believes. "I believe this will inform their sense of place and knowledge of Oregon history; and such things are all for the good."