Watchtower mural painter and team of conservators preserve art and
Native culture in iconic tower
View Watchtower, designed by well-known Grand Canyon architect
Mary Colter, was modeled after several Puebloan structures
in the region. (photo by Williams-Grand Canyon News)
Kabotie, grandson of Hopi artist and mural painter Fred Kabotie,
is assisting the Conservation Associates team with the project.
(photo by Erin Owensby/WGCN)
Conservation Associates team is currently in the process of
maintaining the second floor of the Watchtower. The left side
of this painting has been cleaned and toned, in contrast to
the right side, which still awaits cleaning. (photo by Erin
GRAND CANYON, AZ More than 80 years after
Hopi artist Fred Kabotie painted colorful murals on the walls of
Mary Colter's new Desert View Watchtower, his grandson, Ed Kabotie,
takes a water-moistened brush in hand and applies it carefully to
the unsealed plaster walls.
This is his history. A direct connection to his family and people.
Looking around, Kabotie explains the significance of some of
the figures on the walls. The largest mural, he said, is the story
of the first Hopi person to travel down the Colorado River.
"This young man goes down the river, probably about 1,000 years
before Major (John Wesley) Powell and he marries among the ancient
tribal people of Mexico," he said. "He then returns to his home
up by Navajo Mountain."
Kabotie went on to explain that his grandfather was using a
style of mural that came about in the 16th century.
"Colter modeled the Watchtower on the astronomical observatories
of several different Puebloan cultures in the region," he said.
"She coupled it with the Kiva downstairs, reminiscent of the Kivas
in the Four Corners area, so my grandfather took inspiration from
those two things."
Like most historical buildings, time and the elements have dulled
the sharp black, pink, gold and turquois hues used by his grandfather
in 1933. That's where Angelyn Bass and her team of conservators
Bass, the project leader, describes the effort in terms of conservation,
not restoration a term often applied to historic wall paintings.
The goal of the project, she said, is to maintain the integrity
of Kabotie's original works.
"We want to make sure that the Kabotie paintings stay entirely
Kabotie paintings," she explained. "We won't be overpainting or
changing the composition of the paint in any way."
Bass also said that the team won't change the appearance of
the paintings, either. She noted that the present appearance of
the building, and the paintings within it, is the result of age
and water damage. Put simply, the building leaks. But those leaks,
she said, are a part of the building's history due to the way it
was constructed, and will not be repaired as part of the conservation
Desert View Watchtower is home to three floors of tribal murals
and paintings,including those on the second floor by Fred
Kabotie. Other artists contributed to the third and fourth
floors. (photo by Erin Owensby/WGCN)
salts in cement-based plaster create white stains on the tower
walls due to leaks on the upper floors. (photo by Erin Owensby/WGCN)
Bass indicated several places around the room where water running
down the unsealed plaster walls has caused streaks and staining
in both painted and non-painted areas.
"What we're trying to do is tone down some of the damage caused
by the leaks," she said. "Our main objective with this project is
to clean everything, and then tone down some of those streaks."
Asked about using a sealant on the untreated plaster walls,
Bass pointed out that sealing the walls would only trap moisture
on the surface, causing more damage in the long run.
"The cement plaster is very durable, but it inherently has soluble
salts in it," she said. "When those salts come through, they cause
the white stains you see."
Team member Beth Gersten, who has an artistic background in
mural painting, carefully mixes paint to match the tint of the brown
plaster and brushes it on in layers to mimic the tones and textures
of the wall. The paint is only being applied on the bare walls,
not the murals themselves.
The team of six, including Kabotie, is more than halfway through
the process of meticulously cleaning the walls armed only with distilled
water, paint brushes and small cosmetic sponges. The room was dusted
and vacuumed first in an effort to purge it of nearly a century's
worth of dirt.
"There's been a build-up of almost 80 years of dirt on the interior,"
Bass noted. "It obscures the paintings and it affects the condition
of the walls. It's more of a maintenance and cleaning project than
any kind of restoration."
After the cleaning of the second floor is complete, the team
will return next year to work on the upper floors. Bass explained
that the water damage becomes worse toward the top of the building,
so the project will take a little longer to complete on those floors.
Along with cleaning and maintaining the walls, the project will
also survey the building itself. Douglas Porter, an architectural
conservator with the School of Engineering at the University of
Vermont, is collecting data about external factors that affect the
condition of the both the building and the murals.
"We have set sensors at each level of the building, because
we still don't know the sorts of interior conditions that we're
dealing with," he said. "We don't know in terms of low temperatures
what we're dealing with. We don't know what we're dealing with when
it comes to light levels and CO2 levels from having 5,000 visitors
here every day. We're trying to figure out what exact conditions
cause the salt blooms that you see around the walls, and if there's
a way to work with the interior of the room to sort of dampen that
Porter noted that Colter's use of cement-based plaster has weathered
the exposure very well in contrast to other common building materials
at the time, and that Fred Kabotie himself used many oil-based pigments,
which will repel water.
"We're still trying to figure out the building, what can be
repaired, and what we have to live with," he said. "We're thinking
about how we might use this information to create a better environment
for the paintings."
Data from the sensors will be analyzed for future efforts to
preserve the structure of the building and manage visitor usage.
"The conservation is not just about the wall paintings," Bass
added. "The room was designed with an experience in mind, and we're
also conserving that experience and feel of the room."
For Kabotie, who is presently serving as the artist-in-residence
at the Museum of Northern Arizona, the experience of working on
the project is not only about the art, it's also about the relationships
surrounding and emerging from the iconic structure.
"This was a real thrill to me, to be able to come out here and
work on a historic building of my grandfather," Kabotie said. "It's
very powerful for me. This watchtower to me represents a very different
time and a very different relationship. It represents a time when
the Canyon had a very interactive relationship with tribes. So many
different cultures come to this place every day. The conservation
project in some ways is like a revitalization of the relationship
between the Canyon and the tribes."