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Painting hidden by wall at U of Vermont to get a new life

The Champlain thrust fault visible at Lone Rock Point, Burlington, Vermont. Image courtesy of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) – A painting of a prominent Lake Champlain geological formation commissioned as part of a New Deal program in the 1930s but hidden behind a wall at the University of Vermont for almost three decades is getting a new chance at public life.

Construction workers renovating a building used by UVM’s engineering department discovered the painting last week. The painting was deliberately walled in during a renovation in the early 1990s because officials didn’t have the money to move it.

The geological formation, which is known locally as Lone Rock Point, is notable for a single giant chunk of rock that sits in the lake just a few feet from the heavily forested narrow peninsula. The formation helps define Burlington’s waterfront by marking the northern boundary of the bay that includes the waterfront park, public beach, pedestrian path, ferry docks and marinas.

The painting was commissioned in 1933 or 1934 by the Public Works Art Program, a Depression-era government initiative to put unemployed artists to work. Devin Colman, Vermont state architectural historian, said the program intended to produce artwork for public buildings such as schools, libraries and town halls.

“The notion being, instead of somebody having to go to a fine arts museum to see works of art they could go to the library and see a sculpture, or be running an errand somewhere and see a mural,” Colman said. “It was really trying to get art to the people.”

Vermont artist Raymond Pease painted the scene from the perspective of someone in the middle of the lake looking south toward Burlington, illustrating what at the time was considered one of the best examples in the world of a geological overthrust – 550 million-year-old rocks that had been pushed atop of rocks that are 440 million years old, said Barry Doolan, a UVM professor emeritus of geology. Doolan was the chairman of the department when the painting was hidden in 1992.

“Even a novice, a person who doesn’t know anything about geology, can say ‘how did that happen?’” Doolan said. “It’s just that spectacular.”

The geological scene was originally painted as the central panel of a three-panel tryptic. University officials researching the discovery of the painting found a 1934 article in the Burlington Free Press that described the panel to the left of Rock Point as being of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, for whom the lake is named, arriving at the rock. The panel to the right portrays Catholic missionaries sent by the church to convert the natives to Christianity.

The side panels are missing. Fleming Museum Janie Cohen said they’d like to find the panels, but before they could be displayed publicly, they would require extensive interpretation of the art to reflect current understanding of the original clash of European and native cultures.

“It’s too bad that the whole thing didn’t survive,” Cohen said.

The painting was originally displayed in the Fleming Museum’s as part of a geology display. But in the 1950s, the museum began to shift its emphasis to fine art and anthropology. In the early 1960s it was moved to the Perkins Geology Museum where it was glued to the wall and, apparently hidden and then forgotten, but no one knows for sure, Doolan said.

When the painting was rediscovered last week, officials found a letter by the people who left it there. Back in 1992, there was no money to move it so they decided the best option would be to wall it in, leaving a decision as to its fate to the future.

Now the university has hired an expert to get the painting off the wall without damaging it. The plan calls for the painting to be moved to the present location of the geology department and be restored.

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By WILSON RING, Associated Press

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AP-WF-06-04-19 1945GMT