Rembrandt Conservator Works To Restore Historic TVA Mural

Friday, July 20, 2018 - by Scott Fiedler
Michael Ruzga
Michael Ruzga

An art conservator who can count a Rembrandt painting among his many restoration projects is now working to save a mural at Norris Dam. The severely damaged artwork was discovered behind a dated gold-colored shag rug bolted to the powerhouse lobby wall during preparations for the plant’s 80th anniversary celebration in 2016.

The mural—painted by TVA artist Robert Birdwell in the 1950s—tells the story of how the Tennessee River was tamed to serve the people of the Valley. The problem, however, was that thousands of flakes were either missing or peeling away from the painting, while more than a hundred half-dollar-sized bolt holes dotted Birdwell’s work.

Michael Ruzga, chief conservator and project manager of Fine Art Conservation Inc., was chosen to try to save the mural. Ruzga estimates it will take him and his team of skilled artists and chemists about 200 conservator days to restore the work to its original state.

“At first glance, it was pretty hard to tell if the work was conservable,” Mr. Ruzga says. “In the state that it was, the paint was extremely brittle, like potato chips on the wall. But after two days of testing, we were able to formulate a treatment plan with adhesives and techniques that would return the flexibility to the paint and allow us to lay the paint gently back onto the wall.”

Mr. Ruzga and his team’s techniques include filling each bolt hole with polyethylene plugs and painstakingly reattaching each tiny paint flake back to the mural. Ruzga has a box filled with flakes, and the task is like solving a 30-foot jigsaw puzzle.

When the team is finished, the mural will take command of the room again with all of its charm and beauty. “It’s wonderful to see the mural come alive again,” Mr. Ruzga says. “We want the conservation treatment to be secondary. The evidence of the restoration should be visible only under an infrared light.”

TVA Federal Preservation Officer and Senior Program Manager Pat Ezzell has spearheaded the restoration project since the beginning. She first learned of the mural through a picture sent to her by the facilities team who removed the dated rug from the wall.

“I was elated,” Ms. Ezzell says.

TVA Architect Janine Obenschain had a similar response to the discovery.

“I’ve been an architect since 1986. Of all the finds I’ve been a part of over the years, this one ranks number one,” Ms. Obenschain says. “I had only been with TVA for a few months when we found it. For me, it was such a great introduction to the history of TVA. It has been truly a privilege to be a part of this.”

The restoration is expected to be completed next month. For more information about the artist, Robert Birdwell, and his work click here.


EPB Holds Green Business Expo to Share Sustainability Practices

EPB celebrated the LEED Silver certification of its downtown headquarters building by sharing best practices for sustainability with a Green Business Expo for area businesses. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council and is the world’s most widely used green building program.  EPB updated its headquarters building ... (click for more)

Bradley County Lawyer Censured

Douglas Neil Blackwell, II, an attorney licensed to practice law in Tennessee, has received a public censure from the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Officials said, "Mr. Blackwell accepted a refundable retainer fee from a client in a conservatorship proceeding without depositing the fee into his client trust account until earned.  ... (click for more)

City "Moves Away" From $4 Million Light Show On Walnut Street Bridge

The city is no longer pursuing a plan for a $4,050,000 light show on the Walnut Street Bridge. Dennis Malone, assistant city engineer, told City Council members on Tuesday, "We have moved away from that project." The council had earlier pulled capital funding that had been proposed for the "Ripples of Light" on the historic "walking bridge" that dates to 1891. “Ripples ... (click for more)

Developer Of Publix Grocery At St. Elmo To Go Before Variance Board

The developer of a planned Publix grocery in St. Elmo will go before the City Board of Zoning Appeals on Nov. 7 seeking three variances. Mike Price of MAP Engineers said the grocery has been working with community members to try to come up with an acceptable plan for the site where the former Mt. Vernon Restaurant and Pizza Hut are located. There has been controversy over ... (click for more)

Why Are Joda Thongnopnua And Phil Bredesen Downplaying Their Democratic Values?

For the past several months, the Democratic Party has reached a tipping point. “Their Resistance” is to oppose anything and everything Republicans are doing to deliver a stronger economy and better economic opportunities for all Americans.  Yet, I find it very interesting that the public outcry we are seeing from the Democrats on a national level is nowhere to be found when ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: It’s ‘Tennessee Week’

For over 50 years I have heard the line, “There are two things you must never do on ‘The Third Saturday of October.’ You mustn’t ever marry and try not to die because, in either case, the preacher won’t show up.” He’ll be watching “The Game.” Ever since Oct 18, 1901, Tennessee and Alabama have been going at it and that inaugural game set the tone as well as the standard for all ... (click for more)