Eyes peered back at her through the passage she’d opened through the layers of paint.
They were there, just as they’d been documented in Roy Henderson’s 1939 thesis. And now the real search was beginning, because the real question was exactly how much remained.
Even in a day where the world’s knowledge can fit on a computer chip, people are still attracted to a good mystery. Especially one that has Indiana Jones digging through history to uncover the next clue that takes him to the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.
Or one that has Ben Gates following a trail of symbols to uncover a war chest hidden by the Founding Fathers after the Revolutionary War. Or a quest that has Cheryl Elise Grenier poring over Henderson’s thesis to pinpoint a lost fresco in a stairwell on the west side of LSU’s Allen Hall.
Grenier’s the only real character among these adventurers playing out a real story, and she knew she’d found the missing treasure when she saw the pair of eyes looking back into hers, eyes that were looking out on the world for the first time since the 1950s.
But that was only one set of eyes.
“My question was, was everything there?” Grenier said. “Were Roy Henderson’s frescoes still intact?”
A decade would pass before Grenier would learn the answer.
She stood in the stairwell on this particular Wednesday, her gazed fixed at the top of one of Henderson’s frescos. Yes, it is fully intact, as is the fresco on the opposite wall.
“This will be the last time that anyone can stand this close to the frescoes,” Grenier said. “The scaffolding and the platform will come down after today, and all we’ll have left to do is some cleaning at the bottom.”
That’s not saying passersby will not be able to get an up-close view of Henderson’s work. A trip up the stairs provides a good view.
But not like this, not so close that anyone in the stairwell at that moment felt as if he or she was standing among the characters in the scenes.
And Henderson is among them. He was one of five graduate students working with Conrad Albrizio on what is known in the conservation world as a fresco cycle in Allen Hall.
The first part of the cycle can be found on the east side, beginning with Sue Brown Dietrich’s exterior fresco at the entrance. That fresco also was covered by paint, and Grenier restored it in 2001. She also did restoration work on frescoes covering the upper walls and stairwell on the east side.
The project was funded by donations from Paula Garvey Manship and Imogene Pliner with cooperation from LSU officials and was part of the Diamond Jubilee celebration on campus.
Grenier met Dietrich and Jean Birkland McCandless at an unveiling ceremony for that project. Their fellow students and fresco muralists Anne Woolfolk and Ben Porter Watkins had already passed away, as had Henderson.
Yet Grenier feels as if she knows Henderson. She’s read his papers and letters in LSU Archives and Special Collections in Hill Memorial Library. And she worked from June to September uncovering his fresco piece-by-piece.
“He eventually went to California to teach,” Grenier said. “And he died young. He not only was one of Conrad Albrizio’s graduate students; he was Albrizio’s friend. And he helped Albrizio on other projects, including the large fresco at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport.”
Albrizio was LSU’s first professor of painting, as well as an internationally known fresco painter. He was born in New York in 1894 and later settled in New Orleans. He died in Baton Rouge in 1973.
He is remembered for the murals he created for public buildings throughout Louisiana, many of which were commissioned by various New Deal programs during the Great Depression.
Albrizio received his first major commission to paint frescoes in the new State Capitol building while it was being constructed in 1931, two of which were in the Court of Appeals, which depicted biblical passages about justice. The court is no longer in the building.
Four other panels were in the governor’s reception room and depicted scenes of rural Louisiana. They were destroyed in 1955.
And then there’s probably his best-known fresco depicting views and industries of northern and southern regions of the state at the museum in Shreveport, known as the Louisiana State Fair Exhibits Building in Albrizio’s time. Grenier restored this mural before taking on the 2001 project at LSU.
She also did restoration work on Albrizio’s fresco in the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.
Now, here’s where a lesson about the differences between murals and frescos is in order. The terms aren’t exactly interchangeable.
Put simply, murals are paintings. Fresco is a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly laid lime plaster. In fact, the word “fresco” is derived from the Italian adjective fresco, which means, “fresh.” The technique has been used for thousands of years, yet frescos are rare in the United States.
“What’s so great about frescos is how they become a part of the architecture when they dry,” Grenier said. “They are actually part of the building. Roy Henderson mixed marble dust in his plaster, and if you touch the wall, you’ll find the surface is smooth like marble.”
So, the only way to rid a building of a fresco is to chip away the picture. Paint will cover it, but it won’t destroy it.
Which brings up yet another mystery. Henderson’s murals were lost after having been covered by paint in the 1950s, but why did the university cover these images? Sure, the stairwell was refurbished over the years to accommodate more foot traffic heading to the third floor.
“The third floor used to be the attic,” Grenier said. “But as the university grew, more space was needed. So, the attic and basement were converted into offices and classrooms.”
Still, was that reason enough to hide Henderson’s work?
True, Grenier feared the frescoes had been damaged when the stairway platform was installed, but no indentations were made in the wall. In the end, only a seven-inch line along the top left the frescos with a ragged edge.
Grenier presented a list of acceptable conservator’s options on how to fix the raggedy edge to a university committee. The committee agreed that Grenier should paint in the missing portion, with a noticeable line denoting where Henderson’s work ends and hers begins.
“That’s an acceptable solution in conservation,” Grenier said. “I didn’t use the fresco technique — I just painted it. And it was only background. If it there had been figures at the top then this wouldn’t have been the way to go.”
But there are figures directly below the line, one depicting Albrizio painting a mural within the fresco. This is in the fresco illustrating the visual arts. The fresco on the opposite wall illustrates science, which only makes sense, because Allen Hall once was home to the university’s arts and science departments.
Characters thought to be based on professors and students at LSU in the 1930s diligently conduct experiments, mix chemicals and distill sugar in the science fresco. They also gather in the Nicholson observatory, which is still on campus.
“Roy Henderson often visited classes and sketched the people in them,” Grenier said. “We think some of these are professors, because they’re wearing ties. It will take some research to figure out who they are.”
Meanwhile, on the arts side, Henderson began the scene by painting his fellow fresco-painting graduate students descending the stairs.
“It’s a pun,” Grenier said. “He’s showing a stairwell within a stairwell.”
He also shows himself as Albrizio’s assistant while the professor works on a mural of LSU graduates in caps and gowns backed by a yellow and orange sunburst.
Now, look closely at the faces of the unfinished graduates. They appear to have multi-ethnic features.
It’s something that jumped out at Grenier, anyway.
“Some people who have visited here during the restoration have noticed this,” Grenier said. “Some visitors don’t really see it that way. But if this was the case, this could have been something controversial.”
Then again, the nude model on the other side of the fresco could have sparked controversy. Students paint while he poses.
“He isn’t exactly nude,” Grenier said. “He is covered, but he is kind of explicit. That could have been controversial, too.”
But could either of these images been cause enough to paint over this super-sized work in the 1950s? LSU had, already, admitted its first black student in 1953. And, as Grenier pointed out, the male model isn’t fully nude.
So remains another mystery to be solved.
For now, Grenier is focusing on the final touch-ups and an unveiling ceremony in October, all of which will finalize this fresco cycle.
“The cycle is the whole project,” Grenier said. “It begins on the other side of the building and ends here.”
The final part of the cycle was funded an anonymous donor. The project included the remodeling of the staircase in April and May, then Grenier’s restoration work.
Now, Grenier tested a spot in the stairwell in 2001 while restoring frescoes on the east side. That’s when the paint gave away and eyes were staring back at her. The eyes turned out to be those of one of the coeds in the fresco, but it would take 10 years to get the funding for the project before Grenier could find this out.
Not that Grenier didn’t have other projects on which to work. She lives in Vinci, a town named for Leonardo da Vinci in Italy’s Tuscany Hills.
She speaks fluent Italian and works on frescos around the country through her business, Grenier Conservation, which she formed in 1985. One job included the restoration of Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fore, also known as The Dome.
Having her own company allows Grenier to work throughout the world. That means having the chance to return to her home state for jobs.
Grenier is from Baton Rouge; her parents, David and Virginia Grenier, still live in the city. Her dad, in fact, monitored work on the stairwell as workers installed a narrower platform and stairs. He also acted as her assistant on the project.
Grenier, meantime, earned her bachelor’s degree in fine art from LSU in 1982 and her master’s degree in art history from the university in 1985.
“She’s wonderful,” said Michael Robinson.
Robinson is the LSU Foundation’s senior development director of LSU’s College of Art and Design. He helped organize and recruit funds for the project, and he requested that Grenier be brought back to finish the work.
Robinson also credits David Cronrath, former dean of LSU’s College of Art and Design, and interim dean Ken Carpenter for spearheading the project. “David arranged for the college to contribute funds to the project,” Robinson said. “They worked hard to make this happen.”
As did Grenier. There may be some people who see her as the caretaker of Albrizio’s Louisiana work, as well as that of his students. That may be true.
But would it also be true to refer to her as an adventurer who uncovers mysteries?
She certainly uncovered the mystery behind the eyes in Henderson’s frescos, exposing them to the world for the first time in 50 years. Now the LSU students in the frescos will mingle with those in the present.
And the future.
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