Stage & Dance

Artists use egg yolk and decades-old notes to restore Depression-era Morehead mural

Steve Graves worked to remove Frank Long’s mural “Rural Free Delivery” from the wall of the Morehead police station.
Steve Graves worked to remove Frank Long’s mural “Rural Free Delivery” from the wall of the Morehead police station. McKinney-Graves Art Restorations

For the past seven months, two Kentucky artists have been elbow-deep in egg yolks, working to restore a historic Depression-era mural in Morehead.

The mural hung in the old downtown police station for 78 years. The building was originally the city post office, and it is now marked for renovation or demolition, so it was time for the painting to get a makeover and to be moved.

“We are pretty lucky,” said Steve Graves, one of the artists in charge of the project. “The community felt it was worth saving, and they invested the money.”

Graves is part of the two man team of McKinney-Graves Art Restorations. He and Sam McKinney are known for their art restorations, including the doughboy statue in West Liberty that was toppled by a tornado in 2012.

Painted by Frank Long in 1939, “Rural Free Delivery” showcases a common scene from the mid-20th century, when mail was delivered by horse and families gathered around to see what they had received.

Born in Knoxville, Long lived in Berea for most of his life, operating his art studio and working for the Section of Fine Arts, a program that was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal cultural programs. Long, the only muralist from Kentucky in the program, painted 20 murals in nine years. He died in 1999 at age 92.

The image was painted on canvas, using a method called egg tempera. It involved mixing egg yolks with color pigments to produce a paint. It was common in the Italian Renaissance and a favorite medium for Leonardo da Vinci.

“It dries like an egg shell. It’s very fragile,” Graves said. “Mr. Long was gutsy for even trying it. It’s beautiful.”

Egg tempera’s frail nature is overcome by its ability to keep color.

That wasn’t the case for “Rural Free Delivery” however. The building was originally heated by coal, and the resulting sulfur dioxide began to stain the mural, making the whitest parts a deep black.

Cleaning the mural was the first step for Graves and McKinney, followed by gluing a protective fabric to the surface before they removed it from the wall using scalpels. After getting the mural to a studio, they began weaving the torn canvas back together. The last step was restoring the color in traditional Frank Long fashion: egg tempera.

“Every day we came in and cracked eggs,” Graves said. “We could only paint in small brush stokes. We used a brush about the size of pencil lead, because by the time you redipped your brush, the line you had painted would have dried.”

Finally, Graves and McKinney applied a protective varnish and glued the mural to aluminum substrate to keep it from bending.

The mural, 5 by 14 feet, gave Long as much trouble as it Graves and McKinney, but for other reasons.

When he submitted his sample drawing to Washington, D.C., Long was told by a supervisor in charge of the project that the young girl depicted was “too pretty” and her grandmother was too “fat and ugly.”

“‘You’ve got to come to Kentucky!’” Graves said in retelling Long’s conversation to that post master. “‘Girls are beautiful when they’re young, and then they live a hard life and look like that.’”

Long compromised a bit, giving the girl a less-revealing dress and slimming down the grandmother. After completing the mural, Long drove from Berea to Morehead to hang it using the traditional lead white adhesive, but Washington ordered him to use a brand new adhesive that didn’t contain lead.

Four months later, the mural fell off the wall the egg tempera shattered and the mural was destroyed.

Long had to repaint the mural, and the second version had some differences, including the coat of the cat lying on the porch.

“He was upset,” Graves said about the reasoning behind the changes. “Long probably rushed the second one.”

If it weren’t for Long’s 1997 autobiography, “Confessions of a Depression Muralist,” the original version would have been lost. Inside the book was a small black-and-white thumbnail of the first version. Graves and McKinney used the book and references from Long’s other 20 murals to bring “Rural Free Delivery” back to its original state.

“This whole thing was full of stories that we could relate to,” said Graves, who had a family friend who delivered mail by mule. “My only regret is not being able to meet Mr. Long.”

The mural’s final destination has yet to be determined. Graves said the two strongest possibilities are the Morehead Conference Center or the Rowan County Courthouse.

“Rural Free Delivery” will be on display Saturday at the conference center during the Morehead Antique Market, and Graves and McKinney will talk about the work and the restoration.

Jordan Simonson: @JordieLee_

If you go

Morehead Antique Market

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and 11 a.m.-3p.m. Sun.

Where: Morehead Conference Center

Admission: $2

Phone: 606-548-1073