Mosaic Restoration at Downtown’s St. Jude Chapel

by Paula Bosse

st-jude-chapel_scaffold_052417_bosse_bosseTile by tile by tile… (click for larger image)

by Paula Bosse

A couple of weeks ago I went downtown to check out the restoration of the large mosaic above the entrance to the St Jude Chapel on Main Street. The 1968 Gyorgy Kepes mosaic (which I wrote about here) is undergoing needed repair work, restoration, and cleaning, in preparation for next year’s 50th anniversary of the downtown chapel. The work on mosaics inside the chapel as well as the large one outside is being done by artist and preservationist Julie Richey of Julie Richey Mosaics in association with Art Restorations, Inc.

As you can imagine, the outdoor mosaic overlooking Main Street has, for 50 years, weathered everything from intense summer heat, freezing temperatures, automobile exhaust, slight shifting of the building’s structure, damage to individual tiles, mildew, grout decomposition, and a host of other factors, all of which led to the much-needed restoration work.

A couple of things that I found interesting, in talking with Julie Richey and Cher Goodson (of Art Restorations, Inc.) was that there are over 800,000 glass smalti tiles (or tesserae) forming the sunburst mosaic. 800,000! I had no idea it was so large until I was standing right below it. After missing or damaged tiles have been replaced, all 800,000-plus will be cleaned — by hand, I think — with, as Cher told me, Dawn dishwashing liquid (good for cleaning greasy dishes, oil-soaked waterfowl, and Venetian glass tiles). Speaking of those tiles, one of the most serendipitous moments in this project was when Julie was able to track down slabs of smalti in New York which were the very same smalti used in the original 1968 mosaic — they had been kept in storage for 50 years, and they look brand new. That means that the tesserae being used to replace the damaged or missing tiles are from the exact same batch as the originals, which means the vivid colors, the composition, the opacity, and the surface texture are the same. That is an incredible stroke of luck!

The work should be wrapping up soon — if you’d like to catch the last few days of this project, hop downtown and say hello to the women doing such great work! (UPDATE: The project actually ended Friday. But you should still go down and take a look at it!) While you’re there, you should step inside to see the little chapel, a calm and peaceful oasis in the heart of downtown. There are several other mosaics inside — Julie and company did work on some of those as well, most notably the very large, striking “Risen Christ” above the altar.

Below are some photos I took inside and outside the chapel on May 24, 2017 — most are larger when clicked.

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St. Jude Chapel is in the 1500 block of Main, between Ervay and Akard.

Here it is, seen from Neiman’s, across the street.

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Below is part of the mosaic by Gyorgy Kepes — seeing it up close, you begin to realize that, yeah, there probably are more than 800,000 glass tiles up there. (Definitely click the photo to see a very large image.)

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The photo at the top of the post shows the lift used to tackle the job; looking on is Dallas filmmaker Mark Birnbaum who is documenting the project. Below, Julie Richey and Lynne Chinn are raised up on the lift to do their torturously tedious and very, very detailed work (imagine working on this huge thing using tweezers!). Julie can be seen snipping “new” smalti to replace the damaged or missing tiles, working from photos, diagrams, grids, graphs, and guides to make sure the restoration is as close as possible to the original mosaic: the colors must match, the shapes must match, the placement must match.

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You really have to be focused to do work like this. Here, Julie is setting a tiny piece into that giant mosaic (the marked vertical strips of tape help map the mosaic and insure that everything goes back in exactly as it was originally placed in 1968.

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Speaking of snipping the smalti (which sounds like a naughty euphemism used amongst naughty mosaicists), here’s what’s left over, below. I talked to conservator Callie Heimburger, who gave me a lot of interesting information on how the whole intricate process worked — she was set up at a table on the sidewalk and had containers full of these beautiful discarded glass shards in front of her. I really wanted to scoop up a handful and sneak them into a pocket, but I managed to control myself.

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Everything is meticulously color-coded.

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And smalti? Here are bags of “new” bagged tiles — not shown are the slabs or the larger pieces which look a little like brightly colored peanut brittle.

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Julie asked if I wanted to go up on the lift and take a closer look. It was even more impressive (and a little overwhelming) to be right next to it. I also got to take a look over the top of the building. There Julie pointed out all that remains of one of downtown’s biggest and busiest retail stores, W. A. Green. I didn’t have the presence of mind to get a good photo up there, but here’s the “ghost sign,” seen from across the street.

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Since I was there, I had to step inside to see what the little chapel looked like. It’s very charming. And the mosaics inside are also impressive.

Here’s what you see as you step in.

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To your left is the altar. This lovely mosaic was also restored and cleaned. Also: curved walls, a stained glass skylight, and a light fixture that is one of my very favorite decorative elements of this chapel.

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A closer look at “Risen Christ.”

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Turn around, and from the pulpit you can see the choir loft.

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A wonderful depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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A detail.

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I’m afraid I’m not very well-versed on my saint iconography, but this might be St. Martin de Porres, with a broom, and mice at his feet.

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Leave it to me to find these little mosaic mice, my favorite tiny discovery of the day.

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And here’s the view from the chapel toward Main Street.

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The St. Jude Chapel offers a nice, tranquil respite from a loud and busy downtown Dallas. You should visit sometime. All are welcome.

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UPDATE: Dallas filmmaker Mark Birnbaum was working on a short documentary of the project when I stopped by the site (you can see the back of his head in the top photo). His 10-minute film, “Genesis Mosaic,” can be viewed here.

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Thanks so much to Julie Richey, Callie Heimburger, Cher Goodson, and Lynne Chinn for taking the time to chat with me. Julie Richey Mosaics website is here; Art Restorations, Inc. website is here.

You can see more on this project (including photos and video) on Julie’s Facebook page, here, and Art Restorations’ Facebook page, here; see photos from the Risen Christ restoration on Julie’s blog, here.

The St. Jude Chapel (Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas) website is here; videos on the history of the downtown chapel are here.

All photos by Paula Bosse.

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Copyright © 2017 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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