Cleo Mullins, Art Conservator [Profile]

The Byrd Theatre’s cinematic education doesn’t stop with the projector. Preserving the Byrd’s rich experience also means protecting and restoring the incredible work of Arthur Brounet, whose interconnected, carefully themed murals decorate the theater’s lobby and auditorium.

As highlighted in a previous post, the Byrd Theatre is proud to boast a collection of murals painted by highly-trained French artist Arthur Brounet. Brounet, who specialized in academic theatrical murals, was renowned for creating works that enhanced the relationship between the individual aspects of a building. From the carpet and curtains to the marble accents and gilded finishes, Brounet’s paintings helped create a cohesive aesthetic for theaters all over the country. For his murals at the Byrd, Brounet used the paintings as an allegory to convey that motion pictures were the newest form of drama and here to stay. To make sure these beautiful and historic pieces of art are here to stay as well, the Byrd Theatre Foundation is proud to work with accomplished art conservator Cleo Mullins.

Cleo Mullins, who currently presides as a principle of Richmond Conservation Studio, graduated from the Cooperstown Graduate Program at State University of New York at Oneonta with an M.A. plus Certificate of Advanced Study in Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Following her graduation, Mullins completed an internship/fellowship at the Conservation Laboratory of the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She has since worked as a private conservator with clients ranging from museums and historic houses to private collectors.

For this job, Mullins will aim to restore the Byrd Theatre’s collection of Brounet murals. Painted and installed in the late 1920s, the murals were last cleaned in 1971 with soap and sponge, but it is believed they have been neither retouched nor varnished since 1952. Due to heavy use of the theater and natural degradation over time, the paintings have collected a layer of grime on the surface and the varnish has developed an oily yellow appearance.

Due to how deeply ingrained the dirt is, Mullins will first use toluene–a chemical solvent–to soften the surface and loosen the grime and old varnish to be removed with a water-based cleaner. On certain sections, however, the original varnish can not be removed without risking collateral damage to the underlying paint. In these instances, Mullins will clean off any grime but leave the varnish as a means to preserve the original pigments. After several passes with the cleaner, Mullins will then go over the entire mural with a synthetic acrylic resin to give the painting a more cohesive appearance and protect it from future damage.

So what does Mullins say most separates her work at the Byrd from previous projects? “Honestly, it’s all about access here. That’s the biggest thing I can see,” she explains. Compared to the more common studio and museum setting, her work in the historic theater may present a few obstacles. For instance, access to some of the murals–like the ones above the stationary piano and xylophone–may require scaffolding. Regardless, Mullins is fully looking forward to her work with the Byrd Theatre. When asked her personal opinion about the murals, she replied, “I like this period. You can’t make it too gaudy for me. They really add to the whole experience of the theater.”

Coupled with new lighting, the Byrd Theatre Foundation hopes to debut the restored Brounet murals by the theater’s 89th birthday on December 24th, 2017.