Located on the fourth floor of Hale Library, the restored “We Are the Dream” mural, originally completed in 1980, still hangs after the May 2018 fire that caused significant damage to the library.
Led by fine arts conservator Rachel Gilberti, employees of John Canning & Co. from Cheshire, Connecticut, worked to preserve the mural, among others in the Great Room.
Because of the layers of materials behind the mural, the restoration was a multistep process.
“The mural itself is painted on strips of burlap that hang vertically,” Mike Haddock, associate dean of Hale Library, said. “Those strips were attached to a wood backing, which is attached to an old 1927 stone wall, and behind that is the plaster.”
Gilberti said removing the mural was challenging as the team carefully removed each individual strip.
“We were able to get underneath the burlap and remove each piece, and it was 15 separate pieces that we removed from the wall,” Gilberti said. “Now, the wall is slightly different, so we had to mount it slightly differently. The whole treatment primarily was done in the studio. The treatment there was actually putting it back on the wall.”
Grace Moran, director of Canning Liturgical Arts for John Canning & Co., worked on this project as her first job out of college, allowing her to learn many new skills.
“Rachel did the research to come up with the plan to conserve the artwork, and I worked under her to carry that out,” Moran said. “Rachel was teaching things prior to actually working on the mural, so she would have me practice to make sure things turned out properly. It was a real pleasure to be a part of that, especially being right out of school.”
Moran said removing the mural was the most difficult part of the project.
“We took that mural down off the wall, and it was pretty much a three-person job to make sure the burlap didn’t tear,” Moran said. “The pleasure of working on this job was the challenge, and learning new things and having to adapt very quickly in order to do a professional job.”
After removal, the restoration team cleaned glue and mold off the strips and shipped them to the studio to complete the restoration.
When the mural returned, it stayed in the climate-controlled Kansas State Libraries Annex building until October.
“These art curators are really good at what they’re doing,” Haddock said. “It’s up, and it looks beautiful. It’s never looked as good as it looks now because at the time of the fire, it was 38 years old.”
In 1978, members of the Black Student Union, Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicanos de Aztlan and the Native American Indian Student Body discussed the creation of the mural to promote diversity. Several students helped paint the original piece between 1978 and 1980.
“We should be happy to see this kind of message where people come together,” Gilberti said. “If you look at the bottom of the mural, you can see how many people were involved in making it. … It definitely shows how people got together back then.”
Now, the mural hangs in its original place, and Hale Library has a piece of its history.
“It’s very important because it was a historical part of Hale Library, but also for Kansas State from a multicultural and diversity standpoint,” Haddock said. “It was very important for us to get it back if we could.”