Photo: Ben Wang, 2010

For 33 years, a mural by California artist Millard Sheets has hung in Terminal C of Mineta San José International Airport.  The mural, a gift to the City of San José from the San Jose Mercury and the San Jose News (the predecessors to the Mercury News), commemorated the bicentennial of the city’s founding. It depicts a romantic vision of San Jose history, from the earliest Native Americans, through the Spanish settlers, the orchards, the light tower and early industry, stopping short of the Silicon Valley technology revolution.  Typical of Millard Sheets’ style, the images unfold in layers, with one vignette winding into another.  The large-scale mural, measuring 30′ wide by 18′ at its highest points, has become a fixture at the airport.
With the completion of the Airport’s new Terminal B and related improvements, Terminal C is scheduled to be demolished this summer. This raised issues regarding the available for the mural’s future. Preserving and moving a major mural is no easy task, and as with the many murals across the nation, questions about preserving them garner considerable attention.

The City and Airport approached the preservation of Millard Sheets’ mural very seriously and consulted expert fine art conservators to obtain a clear understanding of the technical issues and alternatives. The work of these professionals included in-depth investigations focused on saving the canvas in its original state.  They looked at the content and composition of the canvas, paint, primer, research into the wall structure, and the adhesive materials used to mount the mural to the wall.

After more than a year of investigation, it became clear that there is no easy answer to preserve the painting itself. The conservator reported that there is no way the mural can be removed in one piece: the materials and assembly method make this impossible without considerable damage to the artwork.  Removing the canvas and wall together as one assembly was also explored.  Unfortunately, removing the wall in segments would cause considerable, irreparable damage to both the painted surface and canvas, which would preclude it from ever being restored effectively. Moving the entire 28-ton wall would be prohibitively costly, estimated at well over $1 million, and still would present serious preservation risks and additional transportation, storage, and relocation challenges.

Fortunately, technology now provides an option for retaining the mural image in a way that was not possible when Millard Sheets first painted it:  an extremely high-resolution digital image can be captured, and that image can produce a high-quality, large-scale reproduction of the mural. Murals generated from digital images can be created on many types of material with excellent results and many additional long-term benefits. This option is now a leading approach to mural conservation nationally, and it could allow for the Sheets mural to have a continued presence at the Airport.

Throughout the process of investigating the options the City stayed in close contact with the artist’s family and with concerned community members.  After reviewing the technical findings, the artist’s son, Tony Sheets, concluded:

“Those responsible for this new terminal construction have worked endlessly to explore ways to remove the mural, hiring several experts in the fields of art restoration and architectural preservation. The conclusion of all, including myself, is that successfully removing the mural intact in anything but small pieces is not possible. Removal of the pieces is not possible without sacrificing the mural as a whole.”

In a community meeting on May 6, the City shared the reports and engaged in a thoughtful discussion about options. Understanding that the original mural cannot be saved intact, all agreed that the option of a digital reproduction was an excellent alternative, and one that could work within the Airport’s schedule for the completion of its renovations. This approach will allow San Joseans and visitors to San Jose to enjoy Millard Sheets’ vision of San Jose for years to come.

Millard Sheets (1907-1989) was a renowned California artist known for his stylized depictions of daily life.  He is credited with over 200 architectural designs and murals that span the United States. His artworks hangs in 46 museums in 15 states, including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Chicago Art Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Locally his presence is evidenced in many building designs, mosaics, and wall paintings. His work can be seen throughout California on the entrances of buildings that were formerly Home Savings of America banks.

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