New life for lost art

Brian Thornton

Photography project will preserve murals in Oscar Ritchie renovation

Leah Byrd, senior nursing major, works in the Malcolm X Computer Lounge on the first floor of Oscar Ritchie Hall. Student-artist Ronald Anderson painted the intricate mural of the assassination of Malcolm X, one of two works in the building that are stil

Credit: John Proppe

When construction workers arrive next summer, wielding sledgehammers and tearing down walls to make way for a new Oscar Ritchie Hall, mixed in with dull gray dust from plaster, drywall and insulation will be vibrant violets, rich browns, somber blacks and vivid reds — the remains of three decades of student-created art.

The renovation of Oscar Ritchie Hall will provide a much-needed update to the home of the Department of Pan-African Studies, Institute for African-American Affairs and Center of Pan-African Culture. But in creating this new interior, a number of the building’s signature murals — some from as early as 1972 — will be destroyed.

An almost-completed project through the Office of the University Architect aims to preserve the cherished artwork, at least in electronic form.

The extensive decoration of Oscar Ritchie Hall, then the old Student Union, began soon after the department moved to the building in 1972, Emeritus Professor Edward Crosby said. Art student Ernie Pryor approached Crosby, then the director of the institute, about painting the walls.

“I had no idea what he wanted to put on the wall,” he said. “But being a man of extreme faith, I told him to go at it.”

Before giving Pryor the run of the building, Crosby started him on a trial wall in a small classroom.

“I had faith, but not a lot of faith,” he said.

Once he saw the progress in the classroom, Crosby was impressed enough to let him work on the main first-floor hallway and then other classrooms. He also provided Pryor money for paint.

“He did a marvelous job on the corridor,” Crosby said. “He wanted to do the ceiling, too, but I stopped him. I didn’t want students falling over trying to read the ceiling.”

The finished mural, which is nearly four feet tall and runs the length of the building on both sides of the hall, presents iconic images from the 1970s. The abstract work fades from one vignette to the next, with black men and women in ’70s dress interacting with celestial bodies awash in a spectrum of colors. Inspirational messages tell visitors, “Turn yourself on” and “Attention — since (you’re) here have you ever thought of what you may have inside you!”

Pryor’s interest in decorating the walls answered a deficiency Crosby felt all school buildings have.

“I always felt that the hallways in these buildings are dead,” he said. “They don’t even have chairs in the hallways. When students wait for classes, they have to sit on the floor.”

Hallways should be just as educational as classrooms, Crosby said.

“I felt that most of my teaching was done in hallways,” he said. “And indeed, most of the faculty sat in hallways and taught students.”

A closer examination reveals just why Pryor’s murals cannot be saved when the renovation guts the building. The art is painted directly on the plaster walls, and Pryor worked on the medium he was given — around bulletin boards, chalkboards, door frames and ventilation grates. On bulletin board frames, 34-year-old purple and black brush strokes provide evidence of an artist working quickly and passionately. The boards that hang before the mural were painted and have never been moved.

When renovation planning began three years ago, current and future needs required existing walls to be demolished, said Associate Professor Fran Dorsey, the acting department chairman. A number of murals by other student-artists had been painted on Masonite boards and could be removed, stored and later re-hung in the new building.

But the ones painted directly on walls could not be saved. The solution: Capture all of the building’s art with photographs.

Enter Steve Elbert, an architect with Moody Nolan, the firm in charge of the Oscar Ritchie Hall renovation, and a photographer. Using a large-format camera, which produces negatives that are 4 inches by 5 inches, Elbert could take pictures of the murals that could later be enlarged to full-size reproductions.

In August, Elbert visited Ritchie Hall to photograph 17 of the pieces — Pryor’s, as well as murals painted by former students Ron Anderson, Adell Ingram, E. Timothy Moore and others.

“It was a two-day period — two very long days,” he said. “It was over 90 in there; it was miserably hot.”

Considering that some murals stretch the length of the building, Elbert captured many of the murals in multiple shots, he said. Later, the images were scanned into a computer at a high resolution: 3200 dots per inch. He was then able to piece the scans together to create a complete picture of each mural. The quality of the images is so high that computer files are as large as 750 megabytes, and the data from all of the files fills two DVDs.

As he worked, Elbert electronically fixed damage caused by three decades of wear and tear. In some instances, masking tape had been used to cover drywall joints. Artists painted over the tape, and when it became brittle, it peeled and created gaps in some murals. Elbert also fixed scrapes and coffee stains — even damage from chalk, which had eaten away paint in classrooms.

To correct the murals, Elbert made assumptions about the artists’ original intentions based on adjacent undamaged parts. But fading from fluorescent lighting and other environmental issues meant he could not fix everything, he said.

The computer files are of high enough quality to create reproductions that match the original paintings. Elbert will also provide Kent State with a catalogue that documents the murals and files that could be used to create banners, postcards, stationery and book covers.

Some of the destroyed murals may be restored in the new building, in a process Dorsey described as creating wallpaper out of the digitized images. The pictures can then be put directly on the new Oscar Ritchie walls.

“We can put the artwork anywhere,” he said. “We can put it on the ceiling; we can put it on the floor.”

Preserving and restoring the vibrant look of Oscar Ritchie Hall after the renovation answers the greatest concern of faculty and students, Dorsey said.

“It’s part of the history of African people culturally,” he said. “It’s part of the culture — it represents and is a reflection of a historical period and what was on the mind of young people during that time period.”

Bringing the works into the new Oscar Ritchie Hall will also allow the stories of the student painters to continue to be told.

Ingram spent a summer finishing his mural documenting the history of African people and then died that fall. Anderson never finished his powerful painting of the assassination of Malcolm X. Moore, now a Kent State associate dean, still plans to complete his half-done mural. And Pryor, now deceased, followed his passion to become the most prolific of all of the artists.

“The people who painted the art on the walls did it not for profit,” Dorsey said. “I don’t think anyone realized how significant that art would be. They live on individually, in terms of the pieces they created.”

Contact Forum editor Brian Thornton at [email protected].