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Indiana's T.C. Steele's paintings to be reunited at new hospital

Saturday, October 26, 2013 - 4:51 pm

INDIANAPOLIS — As patients, visitors and doctors walk down the hallway of a new hospital, they'll stroll through the heat of summer, a colorful fall day, a snowy forest in winter and the blooming leaves of spring.

Four paintings, one for each season, will line the conference room hallway at the new Eskenazi Health facility being built in downtown Indianapolis. The paintings, a set created about a century ago, will be together in the same building for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Indiana painter T.C. Steele finished the paintings in 1914 for Marion County General Hospital, now called Wishard Memorial Hospital. They were glued to the walls to look like murals. In 1960, the paintings were removed from the walls and badly damaged in the process. They then went to hang in the auditorium and an upstairs classroom, and the winter scene was given to the Indiana State Museum in 1976, the Daily Journal reported.

The paintings remained separated until now, when a Center Grove area company will reframe and move them to the new hospital, which will open Dec. 7 and replace Wishard.

Each painting is about 6 feet by 10 feet and may be among the biggest Steele ever made, hospital director of special projects and civic investments Michael Kaufman said.

Taking the paintings down, installing newly built frames and moving them to the new location will require at least four workers from Frames Plus, a 27-year-old company that supplies, frames and moves works of art for businesses and organizations, owner Dick McGovern said.

Maple frames were installed around the paintings in 1960, and the hospital wanted the two new frames to match.

So, for two months, a cabinetmaker who works for Frames Plus built two frames to match. He had to measure and then reproduce the design of the frames perfectly so that all will look identical. The color of the staining on the old maple frames has changed due to age, and the designer created more than a dozen stain samples and took them to the hospital to compare before the color finally matched, McGovern said.

Now, the new frames are ready to be installed around the paintings. Each is covered with a wrap on the inside so that the acidic wood will not touch the canvas. After the paintings were taken down from the hospital walls in 1960, the canvases were mounted on pieces of hardboard. Today, this method would never have been used because acid from the wood eats into canvas over time, McGovern said.

Workers will take the paintings and lay them on a large work table. The current frames will be removed, and then each side of the new frames will be attached individually with fasteners to the paintings.

Once the paintings are framed, they'll be secured in blankets to pad them from scratches and other damage during the move. Four workers will be needed to move each one, and two of the paintings will have to be taken down stairs because no freight elevators are near the paintings, McGovern said.

The movers will plan their route carefully so the paintings aren't damaged while taking them down the stairs or to elevators, he said. They'll take the paintings down to a 16-foot truck that will drive them to their new homes. The paintings will be moved over a period of three days, starting Friday, and each one should take a few hours, McGovern said.

Once the paintings arrive at the new building, they'll be taken up the freight elevator and hung using latches that lock onto the wall. These stop the paintings from being stolen and from falling, McGovern said.

Steele was the leading member of the "Hoosier Group," which included five prominent Indiana painters from the late 19th century known for their landscapes. The group created murals and paintings for the hospital, but many of them have since been painted over or damaged from age, Kaufmann said.

The hospital wanted to honor that time period by hanging some of the remaining paintings in the new facility, he said. The Steele paintings, which were restored in the past few years, were in the best shape to be moved and had cultural significance as the largest the artist ever created, Kaufmann said.

The architectural design for the new hospital emphasizes green spaces and natural light, and the outdoor scenes painted by Steele fit well with the theme, Kaufmann said.

Steele was an Impressionist painter who spent most of his career in Indianapolis and Brown County. He is most known for his landscapes of the area. The Indiana State Museum has a large collection of his paintings, most of which are much smaller than the season scenes he did for the hospital, museum fine arts curator Mark Ruschman said.

The Indiana State Museum agreed to lend its "Winter" scene, which is in storage, to the hospital because of the value of having all four paintings together, Ruschman said.

"It's for the community good," he said. "The murals were painted specifically for the hospital, and we find value in reuniting them."

The paintings are planned to hang as they did when they were first installed in 1914. The winter and autumn scenes will be hung on one side of the hallway, and the summer and spring paintings on the other, McGovern said.

Natural light and high traffic are dangerous for older paintings, so the Steele works will hang in a hallway that leads to a conference room. There, they won't be exposed to too much sunlight, and they'll be in a quiet area that's still free for the public to view, Kaufman said.

The hospital is designed so patients will feel as comfortable as possible, and art is an important part of that, Kaufmann said. Studies have shown that having art, plants and natural light all improve recovery times and mental well-being of patients, he said.

The Steele paintings, along with 16 other works of art commissioned for the new building, help patients and families relax and let go of stress, he said.