Preserving paintings that tell school story Murals: Students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High have left their marks on the walls, and plans are afoot to preserve that art for use after renovations.

November 26, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

BETHESDA -- In the name of progress, 50 years of hand-painted history will be torn down at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

But before construction workers gut the buildings for renovation next summer, parents and alumni at the Montgomery County school hope to digitally save the images created by students and transfer the images to the new walls.

Fifty-six murals of campus life and world events, some as long as 20 feet, rim the corridors above the lockers. Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon gaze across the hall at a 1946 pep rally inhabited by happy rosy-cheeked cheerleaders. A circular celebration of Hispanic heritage painted in 1994 is not far from a serious Hamlet and Claudius done in 1949.

The murals so dominate the interior of the two oldest buildings that walls without them seem unfinished.

"There is a real range of quality, and some of them aged better than others," says Mary Allen, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association and the spark behind the preservation effort.

Some of the work is original, some are copies of Van Gogh and other masters. Several classes are represented by more than one work.

"They must have had a talented class and a teacher who motivated," says Allen, pointing at multiple high-quality paintings by students from 1988 and 1989.

About a year ago, when renovation plans were taking shape for the multiple-building campus, Allen and others realized that in with the new would mean out with the old -- including the murals.

A committee of parents and staff asked a conservator from the Smithsonian Institution and a curator from the National Museum of American Art to see whether the images could be lifted from the plaster.

But that plan was doomed by the discovery of asbestos in the walls.

A $5,000 grant from the Public Art Trust of Montgomery County paid for an architect, who photographed all the paintings. At the very least, the committee will place enlarged prints in the new buildings.

But there are bigger plans if the money can be found.

The committee would like to feed the slides into a computer to remove imperfections in the original images and restore sections where old paint has flaked away. The improved pictures could be transferred to canvas or wood for hanging in the new school when it opens in 2001.

"It's not the same," Allen acknowledges. "But they are worth saving, no matter what the size."

The preservation goes beyond images. B-CC students are tracking down the artists and interviewing them for an oral history.

For Warren Allin and Virginia Patterson Moser, Class of 1948, the interviews bring back memories, but not necessarily about the mural.

"Painting the mural means I got to wear blue jeans," says Moser, a Potomac artist. "We had a dress code, and it was unheard of in those times."

Allin, also an artist, painted the hands and heads of the great composers for the mural that marked the entrance to the music department. He used an encyclopedia to find what Beethoven, Wagner and Mozart looked like.

The painting took several months to finish ("I got out of class, that's what I remember," says Allin with a laugh) but almost didn't survive.

About seven years after its completion, school officials wanted to cut a doorway into that wall.

Faye Shaw, the music teacher, was adamant that the mural be spared. And, Moser says, "When Miss Shaw put her foot down, it was down."

A doorway was cut in Canterbury Tales instead.

Allin, Moser and others recently inspected their work. Both came away happy.

"It has my kind of color, my kind of style," says Moser. "I'm just as proud of it today as I was then."

If you have information about the history of the murals or the artists, call Mary Allen, 301-656-1919.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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