Joyce Hill Stoner, a painting conservationist at Winterthur and the University of Delaware, talks about the process of overseeing and helping with the restoration of a painting by late African American artist Aaron Douglas that depicts images of Haiti, Danielle Bukowski reports.
From outside the deserted Wilmington building, passersby would have no idea that an authentic, nearly 70-year-old Aaron Douglas painting dominates the living room inside.
Douglas, the forefather of African American art and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted the mural in the home of Dr. William Goens in 1942.
The scene, with its shades of yellow, brown, blue and red, depicts Haitian women going to market, a man working in a field, foliage and an iconographic African sculpture. It is currently undergoing restoration efforts by Joyce Stoner and five student conservationists.
Stoner, a professor with the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, said the piece is “a wonderful example of Douglas’ work. It has his signature color palette and the use of the concentric circles.”
“That it exists in Wilmington is really incredible,” said Danielle Rice, director of the Delaware Art Museum, who calls the mural “an absolutely wonderful monument to African American art history, and a significant work of art in its own right.”
Haiti as a subject was of particular interest to black artists at the time, because of the Haitian Revolution.
“Haiti was seen as the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, and that a nation of former slaves became free was a very important subject to African American artists,” said Camara Holloway, a University of Delaware art history professor.
“The mural is very modernist, but also retains aspects characteristic to Haitian art. The women with baskets on their heads going to market was a characteristic Haitian vision.”
Holloway said the flattening of the figures, and the concentric circles, are aspects of modernism.
Harmon Carey, an advocate of the arts, considers the Haitian Mural possibly the most historic piece of African American art in Delaware. He acquired the building, which is now owned by a nonprofit.
“I spoke to some people, including Dr. Stoner, who said it was well worth preserving and that we should use whatever means necessary to encourage that. Steven Jones, an African-American art scholar in Philadelphia, said basically that if I didn’t make an effort to save this mural it would be a crime against humanity,” Carey said.
Stoner estimates that the restoration will take four to six weeks to complete. The mural, painted around a fireplace in the living room, has been damaged by smoke as well as water leaks.
Carey previously owned a gallery at Howard Technical High School, but it was closed in October. He hopes that after the mural is restored and the house renovated, he can turn the building into a museum for African American art.
“The centerpiece will be this mural, but we would have changing exhibits by local artists. This is an historic painting in an historic place, and it really should be preserved for the public,” Carey said.
Although Rice and Stoner are both interested in opening up the building to the public, Stoner described the gallery as a “pipe dream” at the current time.
“The mural needs conservation, and the house needs to be fixed up,” she said.
“We would very much love if the mural were made available for the public to appreciate. I would love for people to learn more about Aaron Douglas and his connection to the area,” Rice said.
Dr. Goens was a pioneering black physician in Delaware, and Douglas was related to his wife Grace. Douglas also painted another mural for the couple’s house in Hockessin, which is currently privately owned. Stoner prefers the one in Wilmington because it has more action and color.
“In restoring the mural, the three main jobs are consolidation, cleaning and retouching,” she said. Three team members are working full-time on the restoration.
Kaitlin Andrews, 22, a UD graduate also working at Winterthur, is in charge of painting. She has been working on a section with Douglas’ signature.
“I learned about him in an American art history course, and it’s great to work on something you’re familiar with,” Andrews said.
Both she and Sydney Beall, 22, a Virginia Tech graduate, were looking for hands-on experience before applying to graduate schools.
“What you learn in class becomes more comprehensive when you’re actually working here,” Beall said, who is trying to consolidate the mural’s flaking. “You get to see the splatters and pencil lines, and the whole thing really comes alive.”
Marlene Yandrisevits, 22, an art conservation graduate student in the Winterthur/UD program, said: “I think it’s really great to see the difference cleaning makes, the changes the painting goes through. You discover something new to the painting while working.”
Douglas did print work, but received many commissions for murals in civic buildings and black colleges.
“This is one of the few works of private commission that Douglas did,” Holloway said. “To have the mural restored and made available to art historians would be a major contribution to the larger picture of Douglas’ work.”