Municipal Building mural comes home

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By Arin McKenna

Council chambers in the municipal building have looked like a construction zone for the past week. And, in a way, it has been, as artist Sam Tubiolo reinstalls his tile mural, “Valle Grande and Jemez River,” with the help of fellow artist Neil Williams.
Many residents have missed the mural, which resided in council chambers at the old municipal building. Council approved up to $45,000 for the reinstallation of that piece and the commission of two new side panels to augment it.
“We wanted something that didn’t feel like it had been taken from another building and just stuck in there,” said Ken Nebel, vice-chair of the Art in Public Places Board. “So having the side panels really integrates it well.”
The triptych now occupies an entire wall in the new chambers. The central panel — approximately 9 ½ feet high and 8 ½ feet wide — depicts mountain peaks in the distance with a river flowing into the valley below them.
“The idea behind it was to give a sense of the caldera, the Valle Grande, and the rivers. I chose the Jemez River coming down as the focal point for the water, and then the caldera, the mountains to represent the rim of it,” Tubiolo said. “I traveled in and around the mountains here, in and around the watersheds and that high paradise of a valley that’s in the big caldera.”
Across the bottom are a series of petroglyphs. When he designed this piece in 1991, Tubiolo was pursuing an M.F.A. in sculpture at the University of New Mexico but was also engaged in archeological work. The petroglyphs —researched by a colleague — symbolize positive messages about stewardship, friendship, bounty and abundance.
Tubiolo was thrilled not only at the request to restore the mural, but also at the opportunity to expand it into a triptych. Having to “crunch” the expansive landscape of the Valle Grande into that one original panel had been a challenge. “What a great opportunity to come back to a piece and flesh it out to the fullness of the original idea,” Tubiolo said.
One of the new panels depicts plateaus and cliffs. On the other, the Jemez River curves off into the distance. Both panels offer an “entrance” for the viewer that creates the illusion of stepping into the mural.
The mural is formed of clay that Tubiolo carves and paints, then cuts into tile segments. Tubiolo was able to locate his sketches of the original panel, as well as the formula for the clay he used.
The clay is spread out in one sheet on a wall-sized easel. The drawing is enlarged and transferred to the clay using a six-inch grid. Tubiolo then employs bas-relief carving to give texture and depth, and finishes by highlighting the buff-colored clay with oxides and stains. He cuts the clay into tiles, which are uniform at bottom and top and morph into the landscape in the center. The center panel alone has 280 tiles, and each one had to be fired.
At some point the decision was made to varnish the original panel. The varnish reacted with the blue stain depicting the river and leached the color. Tubiolo had to try to recreate the color and match it to the new panel, using only old photographs of the work. The piece had been deconstructed and packed in boxes since the old municipal building was torn down.
Brad Parker, owner of Parker Construction, was the contractor who deconstructed the mural when his company was tearing down the municipal building. He came to see it being reinstalled.
Tubiolo and Williams were in awe of what Parker’s crew had accomplished: deconstructing the massive mural —indelibly bonded to a concrete plaster panel with ThinSeal–without damaging a single tile.
Parker wanted to build a large frame for the piece and lift it out of the building on a crane. The county nixed that idea.
So Parker set two crewmembers to work with a small diamond blade grinder. He had them work nights and weekends so they would not be disturbed by the deconstruction of the building around them. The effort took 40 to 50 hours, with Parker worrying about the steep fine per tile for any damage, as well as his daughter’s admonition to “do a nice job.”
As Williams was removing the plaster still attached to each tile, he thought, “the guys who took this out of the wall are bonafide tough guys. Because to do that without destroying it was not only a high level of skilled labor and knowing what you’re doing, they were very, very bright; very, very smart to do that. Because I couldn’t have done it. I would have destroyed many sections.”
So the mural could be reconstructed, Parker’s crew created photographic maps, with a numbering system for each tile.
“That’s a museum quality documentation,” Tubiolo told Parker. “It must have been like archeology in reverse for you guys.”
“Not bad for a demo contractor, huh?” Parker responded.
Tubiolo called Williams the “magician” who got the concrete plaster off the back of each tile. It took the artists four days of grueling labor to remove it; a task they had anticipated would take one day.
“The irony was that they sent five samples. So I just took a really fine paint spatula, a nice stainless one, and, chip, chip, they just came off like butter, just flaked off like crackers,” Williams said. “And I said, ‘Oh, Sam, this is going to be easy.’ Then we see these and the plaster bit into that surface so well, it’s like the fight was on.”
The artists used a grinder to eradicate the plaster. Each tile had to be scrubbed twice to remove the fine dust left behind. Both Tubiolo and Williams lauded the county’s efforts to preserve and restore the mural. The rededication of the mural is at 4 p.m.Tuesday in council chambers.