Editor’s Note: The Beasley Building Mural on the rear wall of 1125 Walnut Street, painted in 1997 by artist Michael Webb, illustrates the revival and reuse of an old Gothic limestone church building. The former headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, built in 1894 and designed by architecture firm Baily & Truscott, is a storied example of adaptive reuse in Center City. Jefferson Medical College spent a number of years there. Pierre Uniforms used the below-grade storefront for decades. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was the location of two different gay nightclubs, Catacombs and Second Story (Philadelphia’s version of Studio 54, but with better architecture).
In the mid-eighties, the Beasley Firm law office purchased the building and began a series of creative restorations. The second story, which originally served as a chapel, and later on as a discotheque, was converted into the firm’s law library with religious stained glass medallions replaced by humanistic symbols and the emblems of local law schools. Beasley also commissioned artist Michael Webb to create a mural, going so far as to purchase the empty lot behind the building to ensure that the mural would remain visible for years to come.
Webb, a well-known Philadelphia muralist with an impressive roster of public artworks, creates murals that depicts iconic Philly sculptures, like William Penn on top of City Hall and President William McKinley on City Hall’s South Plaza. The majority of Webb’s murals, including Beasley’s commission, the mural at 22nd and Walnut that depicts the lost Frank Furness-designed St. James Episcopal Church, and the (now demolished) Julian Abele mural, contain local architectural references and themes.
The Beasley Building Mural, now 20 years old, is currently undergoing restoration. On April 22, the Philadelphia Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture Art will give a tour of Webb’s mural and the Beasley Building interior (a special rate for Hidden City members is available).
Contributor Karen Chernick caught up with Michael Webb to discuss his thoughts on adapting murals to their architectural canvasses and the process of executing public artwork by design versus how it evolves while working in situ.
Karen Chernick: How did you become a mural artist, and what were some of your earliest projects?
Michael Webb: After moving from El Paso to New York and receiving my MFA in painting at Pratt in 1973, I moved to Philadelphia and began to explore how I might unite my abilities as a representational painter with a desire for my work to be connected with the world outside of galleries and even outside of museums. I was interested in the idea of a possible collaborative relationship between art and architecture.
I eventually became a professor at what is now The Westphall College of Media and Design Arts at Drexel University. I was surrounded by designers on the faculty, mostly architects along with the other handful of fine artists teaching there, and I enjoyed being in an applied arts environment. I began to see how I might make site specific commissions the main focus of my work as a painter.
My first commission came from a connection in the design department at Drexel. The client had a house that consisted of two-story brick and I-beams, built in reaction to the destruction of a grand, wooden home that had burned to the ground, taking the lives of many family members. It was rightly deemed in need of transformation beyond its blocky and cold design. A trompe l’oeil representation of elements of a classical façade seemed a possible solution.
KC: When painting a mural commissioned by an individual or private organization, like the mural commissioned by the Beasley Firm, to what extent does the patron dictate the subject matter and style?
MW: The Beasley project was a completely private commission. There was no committee, just Jim Beasley and myself. As an enthusiast of Philadelphian history, Mr. Beasley wanted an historical mural, but did not prescribe any specifics about what or how. I fumbled around with some half-baked ideas to establish a dialogue with Mr. Beasley, with the understanding that I was showing him tentative sketches so I could get his response and, based on our discussion, I could work further on the design. Once that overall framework and look of the mural was established, Jim Beasley gave me permission to start work on the wall with some things unresolved and this turned out to be a really good thing for the light and open feeling of spontaneity this project has and sometimes find missing in large complex images.
All projects are different, but the best client is one who may or may not be completely clear about a “theme” but is open and looking to the artist for coming up with visual ideas as to how a theme might be embodied in an image. A visual metaphor perhaps.
One of my mottos is, surprise myself and surprise my client.
KC: You are currently restoring the 20-year-old Beasley Building mural. How often are you granted the opportunity to restore older works, and what does the process entail?
MW: This is my third restoration. My first was the two walls at 22nd and Walnut, then the Tree of Knowledge on Market Street. The technique was developed about six or wight years ago to meet the specific need for restoration of just this sort of mural work. The worst areas of the wall surface are scraped and/or patched and primed. The wall may be given a gentle power wash if needed.
Then, the entire wall is covered with a special clear varnish. The most amazing thing about the varnish is that, just like varnishing a beautiful piece of wood reveals a depth and richness of color and pattern in the wood grain, this varnish transforms the mural in the same way. It also seals the repair work and forms a stable continuous surface, which becomes a kind of clear primer so that painters can match the repainting of damaged areas with the areas that can be left as they are with the revitalization the varnish provides, making a complete repainting of the mural unnecessary. This is not just economical. It provides a true preservation of as much of the actual painting as is possible, making disturbing changes in the overall look of the original (which causes so much controversy in fine art conservation) less likely.
KC: How much of the mural is planned out in advance, and how much is left to be decided on-site?
MW: As a professor at Drexel, I had the great luxury of working much in the same manner as I would with my studio work where I could be exploratory and take chances, backtrack and carry on when experiments did not pay off. Of course, with mural work I had to be willing to do so in public instead of the privacy of my studio. I need to have a solid design, approved and ready to go, in order to start the actual painting so that I can think and feel free to respond to a range of things happening as the work progresses as closely as possible to the way I do in the studio. If I see something happening that inspires me, I can approach the client with some changes and/or additions, get approval, and hopefully improve the mural. I want to exercise as much of my personal vision as an artist when working on the wall as I do in the design development phase in the studio, as much as is appropriate. When the scale of an image changes, a lot of other things change. It is an interpretation, not a copy.
KC: What is your approach to adapting the mural to its architectural home?
MW: Size and scale can form a kind of visual equation between the design and the nature of the building it is to be painted on. Architecture is the determining factor. A complex and detailed building may suggest an appropriately detailed and complex image. Sometimes nearby architecture might influence the scale of a mural. The Tree of Knowledge mural is on a blank wall at street level and, therefore, has a size, but no inherent sense of scale. The sight lines of the mural included City Hall. I felt that the image could be complex, with lots of delicate shapes and tonal shifts going on, as an echo of the intricacies of ornament, light and shadow, etc. of City Hall.
As far as color is concerned, I strive for images created with a low contrast of light and dark. I also work with a subtle palette. This makes the mural invite the mind’s eye into the image, rather than jumping out at the viewer. For me, this gives the image more contemplative power because, if I am successful, it seems as if the mural is not “on” the wall, but coming from the wall itself.
I also place a critical emphasis on sight lines. In the city, I visually encounter almost every structure or object in an incomplete way since most things are overlapping or being overlapped by something else and so on. How people approach or pass by and experience a wall can often play a role in the design of a mural.
The Philadelphia Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture Art will host a tour of the Beasley Building Mural and the interior of the Beasley Building on April 22. The tour is open to Hidden City readers (with a special discount for members), and will be led by artist Michael Webb and Jim Mundy, director of education and programming of the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. Purchase tickets in advance HERE.