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Old Soldiers Fading

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AUBURN, IND. (WPTA21)-We spent some time in Dekalb County recently, checking on progress of the restoration of Auburn’s Eckhart Public Library, an exquisite prairie style gem gutted two years ago by an arson fire. The work is progressing nicely but part of the restoration effort is shielded from the public eye, unfolding behind closed doors.

“Aesthetically it’s in poor condition,” says New York art conservator Debra Seldon. “Aesthetically you really can’t see the true colors.”

In a quiet corner of this historic building a faded page of history is being brought back to life, an immense mural of a Civil War scene, the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, painted in 1910 by Robert Grafton, a regional artist best known for portraits of Midwestern notables. The Battle of Fair Oaks, a Union victory, was a significant skirmish and important for Auburn, Indiana because Charles Eckhart, the man who paid for the library and gifted it to the town, fought in that battle. This is Eckhart observing the carnage unfold.

“Touch up would be minimum probably on this painting,” says Seldon, “we haven’t really uncovered anything that’s really a large area of loss.”

Seldon is restoring the painting. It was damaged in the fire that gutted the library but the biggest challenge for Seldon is removing a thick layer of a kind of varnish applied sometime after 1910, a substance that has turned the painting dark and is flaking off in many spots. Removing it is tedious but Seldon says at least she has something to work with.

“Overall it’s in good structural shape,” she says. “Meaning that the canvas there’s no tears in the canvas etc.. You know it’s on the stretcher properly but aesthetically it’s in poor condition.”

Areas where the varnish has been removed show a striking contrast to the rest of the canvas. Once it’s all removed some minor paint touch up will complete the restoration. Seldon says the controlled environment of the library will ensure its survival for the next hundred years.

“Not only are we want to bring the painting back to what the original intent of the artist was but we also want to preserve the piece,” she says. “We want to make the piece stable for the future generations.”

Preserving the past to benefit the future, an effort a once-young soldier and future philanthropist would no doubt be pleased with.

Eric Olson

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