Michael Hamilton:
Restoring Post Office art, Hagerstown murals emerge from 40 years worth of grime and dust

Michael Hamilton, Restoration of ArtASSOCIATED PRESS

HAGERSTOWN - The lanky farmer's face brightens as a locomotive steams into view.  But the pinker tone of his well scribbed cheek has nothing to do with the approaching mail train. The more vivd tint of his face, shirt and overalls reflects the painstaking labors of art retorer Michael Hamilton, who is bringing three yellowed Depression-era murals back to life at the Hagerstown post office.

Hamilton's employer, Ludwig Katzenstein Custom Framing and Art of Baltimore, won a $10,000 US Postal Service contract to clean and touch up the murals. The paintings, commissioned by the Work Projects Administration under President Franklin D Roosevelt, have been cleaned just once since Frank W Long created them in 1938.

"Basically there is 40 years' worth of grit, grime, dust, and nicotine accumulation on the surface," Hamilton sadi as her rubbed a 4-inch square section of canvas with a pertoleum based solvent. He began working in early June and hopes to finish by next month.

The earth toned works - two 8 feet by 12 feet and one 8 by 20 - are representative of approximately 1,200 murals commissioned by the government furing thr Great Depression: lean. solemn, people toiling in a local setting of industrial strength or agriculture plenty.

The Roosevelt administration hope such paintings would reinforce Americans' faith in the future and the value of hard work during a period of widespread unemployment, federal preservation officer John Soreson said.

"The idea was to bring it back to the people through a medium, which would be art for the people, making them feel good about themselves," he said.

The Hagerstown murals reflect the city's railroading heritage. In the two smaller ppaintings, people await the approaching train and load bags of mail onto a car. In the larger mral, eight men sort mail inside a train car. Hamilton, 44, holds the paintings in high regard.

"I've workded on paintings that are older and have significant history but these have special interest. This is Americana. These are sort of like our Mona Lisas and Rembrandts," he said. He works 8 feet above the floor on a scaffold that attracts the attetion of postal patrons.

"I'm a big celebrity. It's a very friendly, cordial town and people are always talking to me," he said. "Some say they never noticed the paintings were here until they noticed the scaffolding." The murals will be harder to ignore when Hamilton is done. Cleaned sections fairly glow with bright whites, sky blues and rich yellow-browns. Chipped or cracked sections will be repainted, then each mural will be covered with a clear, long lasting varnish.

Vincent Liberto, facilities specialist with the US Postal Service's Baltimore district, said modern techniques make restorations last longer. And nicotine stains are a thing of the past.

"We no longer allow smoking in the post office, so you kind of eliminate that yellow tint," he said.

Michael Hamilton, Conservator
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Read AP article on Michael's Work


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