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.



Trident Transport Ranks No. 1 In Chattanooga And No. 400 in America On 2018 Inc. 5000

Inc. magazine revealed last week that Trident Transport is No. 1 in Chattanooga and No. 400 on its 37th annual Inc. 5000, a ranking of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. The list represents a look at the most successful companies within the American economy’s most dynamic segment—its independent small businesses, said officials. Microsoft, Dell, Domino’s Pizza, Pandora, ... (click for more)

Five Star Food Service Completes Acquisition Of Mid South Services, LLC

Convenience service provider Five Star Food Service Monday announces the acquisition of Mid South Services, LLC, a Canteen franchise based in Muscle Shoals, Al.  South Services has been in business since 1968 and has grown to one of the region’s top convenience service providers offering micro markets, pantry, full-line vending, premium coffee, water, dining, and catering ... (click for more)

Authorities Say Hixson Man Shot And Killed His 15-Year-Old Son On Saturday Night; Also Killed Family Dog

Authorities said a Hixson man shot and killed his 15-year-old son on Saturday night. A report says Mike McElrath, 46, who was found naked at a neighbor's house, also killed the family dog. McElrath was a former Hamilton County corrections officer from 1996-1999. County deputies responded at 10:24 p.m. to 1846 Cotter Road. The residents said there was a man on their front ... (click for more)

Gary Douglas, 25, Shot Early Sunday Morning; Dewayne Stanley, 24, Is Arrested

Gary Douglas, 25, was shot early Sunday morning, and Dewayne Stanley, 24, was arrested.   The Chattanooga Police Department responded at approximately  3 a.m.   to a person shot on the 4700 block of Murray Lake Lane. Upon arrival, officers were able to locate Douglas, who was suffering from a non-life threatening gunshot wound.   Investigators ... (click for more)

Use Purse Building For Chattanooga Museum Of History And Industry

I was caught off-guard and pleasantly stoked by Eric Atkins' editorial on Chattanoogan.com last week suggesting that one of the soon-to-be surplused city buildings could be turned into a history museum.   I didn't think anyone other than myself that I didn't know cared, or at least would turn their thoughts into the topic of an editorial.  I believe that most of the ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Many Math-Tragic Replies

The reaction to my Sunday story, “90% Can’t Do Math,” was fast and furious yesterday. A surprising number of the replies were from teachers, confirming the fact that only nine percent of the pupils in our Hamilton County Public Schools are getting the education that every taxpayer know will actually shape the lives these students will live. Because my stories are shared on the ... (click for more)