Saving the 100-year-old murals at Wishard 

The people who are preserving Wishard Hospital's historic pieces

click to enlarge The more recent restoration project murals that haven't been restored yet (until more funding becomes secured). - IMAGES ARE COURTESY OF MICHAEL RUZGA AND ESKENAZI HEALTH
  • The more recent restoration project murals that haven't been restored yet (until more funding becomes secured).
  • Images are courtesy of Michael Ruzga and Eskenazi Health

For those recovering from illness, art really does have the ability to inspire and even heal. Patients staying at Wishard Memorial Hospital, then known as City Hospital, in Indianapolis over 100 years ago were able to see softly hued murals while they were recovering. 

At that time the mural project's supervisor, the famous Hoosier Group artist William Forsyth, regarded it as "the most ambitious and monumental work yet undertaken by Indianapolis artists." The story of this significant public art project reflects talents and collaboration from noted Hoosiers, like T. C. Steele, who made their landmark in the art community in the early twentieth century.

This is why conservators this summer worked to rescue four murals painted in 1914. The murals on the fifth floor of the former Burdsal unit of Wishard Hospital faced an uncertain future. The building was recently acquired by Indiana University and was slated for demolition this summer. Before the demolition work began, art conservators from Fine Arts Conservation, Inc. acted quickly to save the historic sites. The four were a collection in the country's first hospital art commission to promote healing and wellness.

"They do support the widely known fact that art is very beneficial in the healthcare work place," said Sherry Rouse, Indiana University's curator of campus art. Rouse added that the Indianapolis hospital was ahead of its time. 

The public has largely forgotten the collection in the decades since their completion. Their age and deterioration have substantially altered their appearance over the last century, and what remains is only a fraction of the groundbreaking project.

Encouraging the patients with comfort and serenity, the large collection of murals showed scenes of idyllic landscapes by renowned artist T. C. Steele. In the children's ward, murals of boys playing rope games and girls holding bouquets lined the walls. Religious iconography was scattered throughout in the hopes of helping patients recover. When they were completed in 1916, it is believed that the murals covered nearly a quarter of a mile along the hospital's interior walls.

Before the mural project began in 1914, the commissioned project was supported by the St. Margaret's Guild, a group of women devoted to improving the hospital. The guild donated funds to make it possible for established and emerging Hoosier artists to paint the murals in the Burdsal Unit. The collaborative artists who painted the murals in 1914 were led by William Forsyth, and included T.C. Steele, John Hardrick, Otto Starke, Clifton Wheeler, Wayman Adams, Simon Baus, Walter Hixon Isnogle, Carl Graf, Jay Connaway, William E. Scott, Emma B. King, Dorothy Morlan and Marinus Andersen.

click to enlarge Removing the historic murals. - IMAGES ARE COURTESY OF MICHAEL RUZGA AND ESKENAZI HEALTH
  • Removing the historic murals.
  • Images are courtesy of Michael Ruzga and Eskenazi Health

This remarkable piece of Indiana's art history was uncovered by Michael Ruzga's team from Fine Arts Conservation, Inc. before demolition begins on the IU-owned Bursdal Unit building. Although they are still hidden behind thick layers of green paint, the conservators were able to see a few features in three of the murals. One mural features a mother, or nurse, accompanied by a cherub or baby.

The process of removing the murals from the walls without damaging them is labor-intensive. Ruzga's conservation team used a 20-inch metal spatula to slide behind the murals and remove them from the wall. One section took three days to remove, while another took four days. 

"It was a miracle we got them off of the wall, and it will be a miracle when we raise the money to salvage them," said Rouse. The rescued murals were wrapped around a cylindrical tube and removed from the building with a crane. Several murals in the collection have previously been lost or damaged, after the Burdsal building encountered water leaks and structural problems in the past. In the 1960s several of the murals were further damaged when they were removed from the walls in an attempt at restoring them. Several organizations have conducted campaigns to remove the most significant mural fragments over the years, the most prominent of which was the Indianapolis Museum of Art exhibition's "Preserving a Legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals" in 2009.

Thirty-six of the murals painted between 1914 and 1916, including several by Steele, are now displayed at Eskenazi Hospital. These mural were also featured in the 2004 publication, The Art of Healing: The Wishard Collection. Others have remained hidden under layers of paint until now.

The conservation of the Wishard murals is a meticulous process. Future work will include carefully removing layers of dirt and discolored varnish from the surface of the paintings. The funding to restore the paintings will be led by Sherri Rouse. Until fundraising begins, the murals will be safely stowed at an art storage building in Bloomington.

Richard Thompson, associate university architect for research, remarked on the two important reasons behind the current conservation project, "Saving the murals for art's sake had been done before," but he added that the murals were, "coordinated by artists and assisted and supported by many others," Thompson said the importance of the murals lies in the fact that viewers can "recognize the intent of the healing significance."

  • Part of an earlier restoration project
  • Images are courtesy of Michael Ruzga and Eskenazi Health

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