Michelangelo Beside the Mississippi

Mar 10, 2015

Some of the renovations going on at the Capitol are obvious, as chain-link fencing and mounds of dirt block access and parking. For others, you have to look up — way up.

From the floor of the House chamber, turn back toward the balcony. There, on a scaffold, stands George Stuart. He’s painting the ceiling.

“This is a touch-up,” he explains. “We had water damage and the paint started peeling. Whole sections had to be re-plastered.”

Stuart, a Baton Rouge resident, isn’t using a roller and a tray of antique white latex. He’s using fine brushes and 27 colors of acrylics. A restoration artist, this isn’t Stuart’s first time channeling his inner Michelangelo in Louisiana’s statehouse.

“I did all the ceilings in the comprehensive restoration in 1998,” Stuart says. He was part of a team of seven artists recreating the Art Deco motifs on the ceilings of the Senate and House chambers, and in Memorial Hall — most often referred to as “the rotunda”.

“We had to scaffold the entire chamber,” Stuart reminisces, “And it’s — what would you say? About a hundred feet tall?”

The key to the work then was matching the original oil colors from 1932, which had become muddied by age and several generations of smoking inside.

“Once we had the right color matches from the laboratory, we wanted a modern medium so that it simplifies things,” Stuart says, adding that acrylics dry much faster than oils, which take three months to a year before they’re totally dry. “Now this becomes a gigantic paint-by-number.”

Some of the motifs he is repairing are one-of-a-kind, although Stuart has hand-cut stencils for painting the repeating patterns. Even those aren’t as easy as filling in a coloring book outline.

“Besides the 27 colors, you blend from one color into another, wet-in-wet,” he explains, and then demonstrates. “You blend this color into that color and so you have these beautiful soft edges.”

Stuart says he can’t use exactly the same colors he did 17 years ago. “Because they have changed over time, and I have to match the coloring that exists now.”

Stuart is carefully documenting his work for artists who follow after him, saving his stencils, color samples, and assembling an 8-foot long storyboard filled with photos of his work in progress.

Stuart started this project Jan. 16 and he’s only got until April 12 to complete his work.

He says he’s just as awed to work on the restoration now as he was the first time, and he’s honored to be a part of the preservation of Louisiana’s history.

“This was the project of a lifetime for me.”