Indiana State University Newsroom

Preserving history: Local artist restoring University Hall's Gilbert Wilson mural

September 1, 2009

Terre Haute, Ind. - A Terre Haute artist is temporarily switching gears from creating art to restoring a work of another local master - one stroke at a time.

University Hall, fresh from a $29.8 renovation, still holds many treasures from its Laboratory School beginnings - the clay bricks that line the hallways, beautiful wood casing on the doors and windows and one of the few remaining murals by local artist Gilbert Wilson in Terre Haute.

Wilson, one of the most outstanding mural painters in America in the 1930s and 1940s, was a student of William T. Turman, an Indiana State University professor of art and a landscape painter, before enrolling in the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. While in Chicago, he met muralist Eugene Savage and became his apprentice. He painted murals for Terre Haute millionaire C.W. Root and earned the money to study with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Wilson died in 1991 in Frankfort, Ky.

Artist Bill Wolfe is recreating Wilson's original vision during the 10-week restoration using the same materials the Terre Haute-born muralist used -- Rembrandt chalk pastels. The University Hall piece, depicting the ravages of man on nature and the madness of war, was done in 1936 and was completed by Wilson in six weeks.

"It's a historical work of art by a local master," Wolfe said. "It would be a tragedy to lose it."

John Lustig, curator of the Permanent Art Collection at Indiana State, uncovered an interesting story while researching Wilson's Lab School work.

"Originally the mural wrapped its way around and down the hallway until one afternoon Wilson was provoked by someone in maintenance," Lustig said. "In a flurry of outrage he washed away the outer walls. His father paid to have the walls repainted and brought to their original condition."

Wolfe, who studied art at Indiana State from 1973-1976, said the restoration was done in four phases - cleaning, restoration, under painting and finally reconstructing the design in chalk. Once finished, the mural will be sealed to preserve it for future generations.

"This is an exciting project that honors and preserves the cultural legacy of the institution," Lustig said. "The mural links us to our predecessors, their politics and sentiments. The artwork was done in a style during the 1930's commonly known as "social realism" or an attempt to depict stylistically a harder grittier point of view not common in art previously.

One of Wolfe's first duties was to carefully remove the dust without wiping off the chalked images.

"I took a small brush and carefully removed 73 years of dust," he added.

The mural, which over the years sustained water damage and was infected with mold, had to be treated before Wolfe could begin restoring the historical work. While it was a setback, the artist was able to us it to his advantage.

"Because the mural was so damaged, I was able to see the black under painting and how the mural was constructed," Wolfe said. "That was very helpful."

Not only is Wolfe restoring the work, he's striving to maintain the integrity of the work.

"I'm trying to keep this mural very close to what Gilbert Wilson did originally," Wolfe said, adding that has been a challenge.

"Gilbert Wilson was left handed and I'm right handed," he explained. "I've had to do the work left handed to keep with his style and stroke."

Mural work is a first for the Terre Haute artist better known as a sculptor. But Wolfe feels like a torch has been passed.

"Gilbert Wilson was a well-known muralist," he said. "It is a blessing and an honor to carry this art form on."

Wolfe is enjoying the lessons he's learned as he lovingly restores the work a master.

"Gilbert Wilson is teaching me right now," Wolfe said. "When I'm working on this mural he's training me to do one of my own."

Wolfe will get his turn soon. He has been tapped to create a mural in the Vigo County Courthouse illustrating the area's rich history.

"I'll be utilizing Gilbert Wilson's knack for flow, tying together many different scenes where they become one image," Wolfe said. "He was a master at that. I'll be able to create a mural in Gilbert Wilson style which would be very fitting."

The University Hall mural, which was a WPA funded project, has a message. In his writings, Wilson stated "It is an attempt to state thru the medium of form and color the greatest problem facing civilization today. That problem is WASTE. Waste of the earth upon which we live and the waste of human life."

While the mural was completed in 1936, the message is still relevant today.

"The message he's illustrating in the mural is still true today," Wolfe said. "It makes you think about how far we've really come as a society and whether we've actually learned anything."

Bradley Balch, dean of the College of Education, focuses on the positive message the historic mural conveys.

"The mural has a message of hope, illustrated by the hands reaching toward a light," Balch said. "Hope answers the problem of waste."

The university has six Wilson works, including the mural. One of the most visible works, "They Who Work Humbly," can be found in the foyer of Tilson Auditorium. The piece, dated 1932, was influenced by the Mexican born muralist Diego Rivera.

Wilson painted a mural of Fred Donaghy, a professor of physiology and hygiene, in the main corridor of the Science Hall (later re-named the Classroom Building) in 1938. The mural was lost when the building was razed in 1998. Wilson's other murals are located at Woodrow Wilson Middle School and in the Community Theater Auditorium.


Caption: After removing 73 years of dust that had built up on the mural, artist Bill Wolfe brings Indiana State's Gilbert Wilson Mural back to life while learning lessons from the notable muralist. (ISU/Kara Berchem)
Caption: Wolfe, utilizing Wilson's style and stroke, re-creates grass found at the bottom of the mural, located inside the south entrance to University Hall. (ISU/Kara Berchem)
Caption: Wolfe's restoration preserves the integrity of Gilbert Wilson's original work, down to the intricate details. (ISU/Kara Berchem)


CONTACT: John Lustig, ISU Permanent Art Collection, (812) 237-4334

WRITER: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or