Alice In Wonderland Mural Discovered On SDSU Campus
CAVANAUGH: If you visit San Diego state university, you'll see a lot of construction going on. That's because the campus continues growing and expanding as it's been doing almost nonstop since it was founded. But occasionally progress covers up treasures from the past. And it's up to intrepid scholars to find whether or not it is been hidden. Now a discovery from the past has delighted San Diego art historians and brought a bit of childhood whimsey back to the SDSU campus. My guest, Seth Mallios is professor in the SDSU department of anthropology. MALLIOS: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Mary Jane Conlan is the daughter of mural artist, Albert Lewis. Thanks for phoning in. CONLAN: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: And Evelyn Kooperman is joining us in studio, a San Diego author and former librarian. Welcome, KOOPERMAN: Thank you, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Seth, you've been searching around Hardy tower on campus for quite some time. What have you been looking for? MALLIOS: I call it vertical archaeology. We're looking for remnants of the past that are hidden either behind calls and up above dropped ceilings. Hardy is this treasure trove of artwork deputy by SDSU students during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. And the stuff is still there. And it's been fun to peel back those layers of time and see what the students were doing. CAVANAUGH: Why are so many of the murals you're finding located at hardy tower? MALLIOS: There are two reasons. Hardy tower was the original library. It used to be known as library tower. And the original art department was in the basement of the library. And one of the great things about this time period, this was a moment where students were being trained in art for jobs in the real world. So if muralism was going to get them a job in the 1930s and 40, they would practice on the walls. CAVANAUGH: I was going to say. They just let them paint on the walls? MALLIOS: Pretty much, yeah. [ LAUGHTER ] MALLIOS: And what's so exciting for me, students had the freedom. So you really get to tap into their mindset. There are times when artifacts of the past give us that immediate creative insight into people. This isn't something that's standardized or purchased from a catalog. This is their flare for life right there. CAVANAUGH: When you first heard tale was an Alice in Wonderland mural, how much credence did you give that rumor? MALLIOS: You know, I get contacted a lot with stories of murals. And they're almost always based in truth Byou none of them have been exactly right from start to finish, with the exception of a few. And so I was a little suspicious. I remember I gave a talk, and somebody said, you know, there were fantasy murals in hardy tower. And I was suspicious, but then Evelyn contacted me. And that's where we got to see proof, not only in old photographers but oral histories of the exact area. CAVANAUGH: Now, Evelyn, you saw this Alice in Wonderland mural when you were a child. KOOPERMAN: Yes, my mother had been a librarian here at San Diego state about ten years before I was born. Then she took a long leave of absence to raise me. And we've come back every year for Founders' Day. And we'd always go to the library to visit her friends. And the highlight of the year practically for me was seeing this mural of Alice in Wonderland in the old library. Even at that time in the early 50, not people people walked down this hallway and up and down this stairwell. So I felt it was my own private little mural. And I was look forward to every year coming to see Alice. I would say oh, let's go see Alice! CAVANAUGH: Now, people, our listeners can see a representation, a photograph of this mural on our website. But can you for people who aren't on the Internet right now, you can describe a little bit of what the mural looked like? KOOPERMAN: Well, it had a big jabberwocky looking down on the red queen. And some. The chess players, I believe. And then on the other side was Alice looking down the rabbit hole with the white rabbit. CAVANAUGH: Very colorful, too! KOOPERMAN: Yes. CAVANAUGH: And set in a WPA sort of art style. If people remember those murals that were developed at the time when artists were working for the Works Progress Administration. MALLIOS: Yeah, and this represents the next phase as well. It's the move from WPA to this fantasy period. After World War II, a lot of people are fatigued by so much depressing reality. And that's where we see muralism turn toward issues of escapism. We also have an Odysseus mural right across the hallway. They both tap into this desire to see fantasy, something that's a little more friendly than the reality of the 1940s. CAVANAUGH: Exactly. With all these farmers in these murals during the depression. That was a nice break. MALLIOS: Right. CAVANAUGH: Before I ask some questions of Mary Jane about her father who actually created this mural, I have to round out this story. So you saw the pictures that Evelyn gave you, and you had an idea where this was. So how did you actually find the mural? MALLIOS: A few things were going on at the same time. The university was replacing all of the placards on the walls to put in Braille. And when they peel offend these placards, it peeled through the paint and history some small holes in the wall. That's where we saw the Odysseus mural. In addition, we have some folks who do thermal imaging, and they can see through layers of paint. So they were able to confirm this one. And at the same time one. The areas of hardy tower had a leaky roof. And some water was traveling in between the later white paint that seal today in the 1980, and the original oil point. So it blisters. So we could start to see these colors. And we got to see part of the jabberwocky poking through, this large, black gray dragon. And it was very exciting to know it's really there. And one thing, this is a very large mural. It's about 8.5 feet tall. And you can't always see that from the snapshot, but it's very big, very spectacular. CAVANAUGH: Now, Mary Jane, you are the daughter of the man who painted this mural, Albert Jay Lewis. Tell us about him as an artist. CONLAN: Well, dad had always been an artist, even when he was a small boy. He grew up in Kansas, he was a child during the depth of the depression. But he was always painting and drawing. It was just sort of part of his DNA. Then he was in World War II, he was a medic, and he was stationed in England. And then after the war, he came back and through the GI bill, he attended San Diego state and majored in art and ultimately got his masters degree there. And he studied under -- he had one mentor in particular, Lowell Hawser was his mentor. I believe he was the best man at my mom and dad's wedding. And then he became an art teacher. And he caught at Dana junior high school, Clairemont high school, and ultimately Mesa College for many, many years. And all the time that he was teaching, he was also painting and drawing and creating art. And he did -- he had a show up in Los Angeles, he sold a few paintings here and there. But he didn't really get a lot of recognition. And so fiduciary something like this to happen at this point in his life, he's 88 years old, it's really, really amazing. CAVANAUGH: Now, was it common knowledge that the school was going to be painting over this mural in the 1980s? CONLAN: He didn't know about it. He found out about it, and I remember him being rather upset that they had done that. So I don't know in terms of the larger community who knew about it, but I think it came as a big surprise to dad. CAVANAUGH: Now, tell me about his reaction about having this Alice in Wonderland mural rediscovered. CONLAN: Well, he is infirm, and he has some dementia. He lives in caregivers in San Diego. But I talk to him every night, and he definitely understands what's going on. He knows who I am when I talk to him. So I told him what was going on, and he was really, really pleased. I could tell. And so then a couple of days later, he was speaking to one of the caregiver, and he said they found my white rabbit! And she's, like, yeah, they did! And he said that white paint was uncalled for! [ LAUGHTER ] CONLAN: And she said but they're going to take the white paint and move it off and move it to the library. And he laughed and smiled and was really happy. And I talked to her yesterday, and she said he talked about it again, so yeah. CAVANAUGH: That's really wonderful. What was the rationale behind painting over these murals in the first place? Do you know? MALLIOS: Yeah. And it never sounds good. It's one of these things that -- no offense, it's my least favorite question. [ LAUGHTER ] MALLIOS: It's not a defensible answer. I've heard that white walls are easier to take care of than painted walls. And it's just not true. None of these murals had ever been defaced. The only damage that they saw was by the later development and redevelopment. So I think it was people just trying to make their lives easier instead of thinking about public good and art. CAVANAUGH: What happens now with the mural that you found? What are you going to do now? MALLIOS: This is where it gets very exciting. First there's a lot of fundraising involved. It is expensive to pull very, very old oil paint off of a poured concrete wall. This is not an easy process at all. There are only a few people in the world that can do this. But the great thing is we have a track record with the other WPA murals that we can do this. So we'll raise the money for this. And then the conservator will put a face on it, and then they'll work from behind the mural. It's one of the most intriguing things because they go with the reverse side of it. That's the side that can be damaged because it's unpainted, and then they'll actually peel it off the wall. By the time they're done, it's not a very thick swath. And because the concrete is so brittle, is it fractures easily. So we'll roll it off the wall, and then it'll get mounted on a lightweight honeycomb panel, and then we'll be able to remount it and put it some place new. The leading candidate would be this for to be the entrance to the children's literature section at Love Library. We have a great children's literature program at San Diego state. Of the library is fantastic. The only problem is that that section of the library isn't very warm and welcoming. It's cold shelving and laNoelium floors. So we want this magical gateway that they get to walk through. The window there could be a doorway as well. And I imagine generations of San Diego student, little kids, walking through this portal and then getting to see all of their favorite books and just immerse themselves in it. CAVANAUGH: So Evelyn, there's a possibility that other children will have the same kind of experience you did. KOOPERMAN: Well, I certainly hope so! And I still love reading Alice's adventures in wonderland. CAVANAUGH: Right. How long would this process take? MALLIOS: One of the things is that it doesn't take that long to do the actual conservation. The conservator has likened it to peeling a 9-foot sunburn. But he wants to do it as soon as possible. So the process of getting it off the wall only takes about a month. And then remounting it is only a month to a month and a half. And one of the nice things that ties into Evelyn's story is that this hallway is still not heavily used. The main part of Hardy tower, that's where the traffic is. This is around the backside. And it wouldn't be a big deal to close off that hallway. Other murals that we worked on, are we had to work on from 11:00 at night to five in the morning because they were high-traffic areas. This one we wouldn't have the same constraints. CAVANAUGH: So this is sort of a collaborative effort. I'm wondering, as you go and inspect other areas of the campus, are you -- in Hardy tower and other places, are you still looking for pieces of art, works of art that have been hidden and painted over and remain undiscovered? MALLIOS: Yeah! Although there is no ceiling duct I won't climb through to try and find these treasures. We were able to synthesize a bunch of this in a new book called hail Montezuma that is all about the great little things that snuck behind walls and corners. And the alumni association has been fantastic with this. Tobin Vaughn has been an invaluable resource with connecting us with people of the past. And there's been sort of a mural fever on campus that's been fun to watch. A lot of different people have stories about some other areas of campus to check out as well. CAVANAUGH: As you mentioned, the picture that Evelyn had of the mural is on our website if you want to see how it looked in its glory and perhaps will look again. Thank you all for sharing this story. It's really very interesting.
Hardy Tower is one of the oldest buildings on the campus of San Diego State University. It has a bell tower and its Spanish revival style architecture stands apart from newer campus construction.
Seth Mallios spends a lot of time in Hardy Tower, searching for clues.
He’s looking for murals that used to cover the walls and ceilings throughout the building, which used to be home to the university library and art department. Many of the murals date back to the 1930s and 40s. Over the years, they’ve been painted over or lost to new construction.
Mallios, an archeologist and head of the anthropology department at SDSU, says he's been all over the campus. "I’ve crawled into every ceiling, under every building, I have found a couple of other murals. I’ve found sketches of murals."
On a tour through Hardy Tower, Mallios points to where he's found murals and where he suspects there are others. He reaches up and lifts a drop ceiling panel to show me his latest discovery. It's an incomplete sketch of a bare-chested Egyptian woman. Mallios grins. "There are so many mysteries in this building."
Mallios has already saved three historic murals, including two 1930s, WPA-era murals from Hardy Tower. The other was a mural outside of a campus music club. It was saved days before the building was demolished.
People give him mural tips all the time. A couple of years ago, he’d heard rumors about an old Hardy Tower mural featuring the characters from the beloved children's book "Alice in Wonderland." But he wrote it off as only a rumor. "There have been numerous wild goose chases that haven’t panned out with anything," says Mallios.
But then came Evelyn Kooperman. She's a retired librarian and author of two books on San Diego trivia. When she was a little girl in the 1950s, her mother used to take her to see two murals tucked away in Hardy Tower. One featured the character of Odysseus. The other, was the "Alice in Wonderland" mural. "I just thought they were wonderful," says Kooperman. "They were big and bright and colorful. And I just loved them and every year I would say to my mother, 'I want to go see Alice! I want to go see Alice!'”
Kooperman told Mallios about the mural that meant so much to her. "Best of all, she had snapshots of it," says Mallios. "The murals were painted over after 1984 but she had these pictures."
The low-resolution photographs revealed a 6-foot mural surrounding a large window on a stairwell landing. It depicted Alice peering down the rabbit hole. She was surrounded by other characters from the book, including the Jaberrwocky and, of course, the white rabbit.
Eventually Mallios found what he suspected was the mural wall in a rarely used stairwell in Hardy Tower. It was painted a boring beige. But the paint was chipping, which revealed a colorful under layer. Special thermal imaging confirmed it. The Alice mural was still there.
Turns out it was painted by Albert J. Lewis in the 1940s. He studied art at SDSU on the G.I. Bill. Lewis is now 88, but still lives in San Diego with a caretaker. Mary Jane Conlan is Lewis’ daughter and lives in New York. She remembers how angry her father was when they painted over the mural in the '80s. Conlan told her father over the phone that his mural had finally been discovered. He was pleased. Conlan didn't realize how pleased until later, when he told his caretaker: "They found my rabbit!"
Conlan says the mural's discovery means the world to her father, who taught high school art for years. "He didn’t get a lot of recognition," says Conlan. "He sold a few paintings but not a lot and for something like this to happen at this point in his life, it seems like a minor miracle really."
Back in Hardy Tower, Mallios shows me the signs of water damage on the mural wall where blisters on the surface paint puff out almost an inch. The mural needs to be saved soon before the water leaks cause more damage. "I worry about rainstorms," Mallios explains. "Every time it rains, I worry about this mural."
Mallios is currently raising money to save the mural. He'll then hire a conservator who will gently peel the mural off the wall. The plan is to put it in the children’s literature section of the SDSU library by 2015, which marks the 150th anniversary of when Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was first published.