Restoration of the “History of Learning in Florida”

Photograph of "History of Learning" mural after conservation treatment
Submitted by Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler, Exhibits Director

In 1953, a very large piece of art was created by UF Art Department faculty member Hollis Holbrook specifically for the University of Florida Libraries. The over 600 square foot mural was painted above the recently constructed entrance to the Main Library’s Humanities Room (now the Special & Area Studies Collections Grand Reading Room in Smathers Library). Holbrook created the mural with egg tempera over several layers of sanded gesso directly on the wall over a period of about three months.

About the Mural

As the title suggests, History of Learning in Florida, depicts education in the state. Starting in the lower left corner, there is learning from contact and trade. In the center, there is a figure with the tree of life or knowledge. Along the center bottom are portraits of unidentified, presumably influential, white men. On the right third is formal education and religion, as well as several curious depictions. At the lowest part, is a self-portrait of Holbrook holding a copy of the “East Florida Gazette,” which was the first newspaper published in Florida. Former library Director, Stanley West, is pictured on Holbrook’s right. Above the printing press is a scene presumably celebrating the 15th Amendment that features an African American man voting alongside a white man. To the left of these two vignettes is a generic schoolhouse scene with a significance that wouldn’t be discovered for 60 years.

Photograph of "History of Learning" mural after conservation treatment
History of Learning after conservation treatment. Photograph by Eric Zamora.

From 1953 to 2015, the mural acquired layers of dirt, dust, and grime from regular room use, open windows (before air conditioning), and even nicotine from when smoking was allowed in the room. Hoping to bring back some of its grandeur and preserve it for the future, Smathers Libraries hired Artcare Conservation in the fall of 2015 to evaluate and treat the mural for the first time in its history.

Four women on scaffolding in front of a mural
Conservators from Artcare Conservation (Miami). L-R: Veronica Romero-Gianoli, Rustin Levenson, Betty Pattino, Kelly O’Neill.

Restoration of the “History of Learning in Florida”

For one week in October, four conservators painstakingly analyzed, cleaned, and repaired History of Learning in Florida. They worked in public view, with visitors streaming in to check on the progress. They found areas where paint had flaked off; brilliant reds and oranges that had darkened considerably; evidence of draft compositions which resemble the two original sketches that are in the collections of the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art; and even some fibers from Holbrook’s paintbrush. Yet the most fascinating thing they found was in plain view, although not easily seen from the ground. Below the generic schoolhouse scene on the right side is a small inscription on a chalk tablet. It reads: “dedicated to Nicky who died of polio in July 1952.” Directly above the tablet presumably sits Nicky; a smiling boy visibly different from the others in the class.

Detail of History of Learning. In the bottom left corner is the board that contains the information dedication to Nicky on a chalk tablet.
Detail of right side of History of Learning after conservation treatment. The dedication to Nicky is in the bottom left corner. Photograph by Eric Zamora.

Conservation revealed an unexpected mystery. Who was Nicky? Why did Holbrook dedicate the mural to him a year after his death? A Samuel Proctor Oral History Program interview revealed the only lead. According to a 1975 conversation with Holbrook, his son died of polio in the early 1950s. However, we did not find records of his son’s name or exact death date but assume that the smiling Nicky to which the mural is dedicated is the son he had recently lost.

When asked about the mural, Holbrook said “the colors and the way it relates to the room are most important.” The 2015 conservation treatment, allowed that relationship and Nicky to shine once again.

About Hollis Holbrook

Hollis Howard Holbrook was born in Natick, Massachusetts in 1909. He graduated from the Massachusetts School of Art in 1934 and the Yale School of Fine Arts in 1936. From 1938 to 1978, Holbrook was a faculty member of the UF Art Department (now the College of the Arts, School of Art + Art History). Throughout his career, he created over 500 paintings, murals, and sculptures, including six commissions to paint murals in post offices throughout the United States. Holbrook passed away on August 18, 1984.

Want to see Holbrook in action? We have videos of the artist creating the mural (available on YouTube).

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