Moving art is never an easy task, but moving one of Museum of the Bible’s newest treasures was truly an undertaking.
In July 2019, the museum was contacted by a church in Phoenix needing to remove a large mural from its campus. The church was renovating and no longer had room but wanted the mural to be saved and appreciated. Given the mural’s subject matter, they contacted us.
I remember being instantly intrigued by the email’s title, “Photo of McCall Mural.” From the ages of 10 to 22, I lived in Arizona and so was familiar with the McCall name. He, too, was an Arizona resident and many of his murals decorated the valley. He was our small connection to NASA, so, of course, we all thought he was cool.
Outside of Arizona the name McCall may not be very familiar, but I bet you’ve seen his work. Robert McCall was NASA’s premier illustrator from the 1950s through the 1970s. Any drawings or paintings you might have seen during that time that were space related — on posters, marketing campaigns, magazines, and more — were likely created by McCall. He created the promotional material for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and painted a large mural for Disney’s Epcot Center titled, The Prologue and the Promise, which depicted mankind’s technological progression over time. Friend Terry Thomas described McCall as a futurist, painting what he envisioned the future would look like. Indeed, he was fascinated with the future of civilization, and the potential for even greater discovery about who we are and what we are capable of. His artistic style utilized the bold colors and lines of mid-century America, drawing inspiration from NASA spacecrafts and the multiple new materials and shapes being introduced into the consumer market. His work highlighted the excitement of this era of innovation and the belief in forward progress.
So, when his home church in Paradise Valley, Arizona, wanted to give Museum of the Bible a mural painted by him, I knew we wanted it. Even better, the subject matter was a perfect fit for the museum. Not only did it highlight his love of space — with planets, stars, and galaxies swirling — it also highlighted his faith. Titled, Music Is at the Heart of the Universe, a large banner at the top reads, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” (Latin for “Glory to God in the Highest”), and a large cross sits atop a planet at the center of the composition. At the end of a large classical-style portico, three robed choir members stand under the planet, singing. I would find out later that the mural was in the choir room.
Figure 1: Robert McCall's "Music Is at the Heart of the Universe"
However, there was one BIG problem. The mural was enormous — over 12' tall by 22' long. How were we going to remove this mural and transport it? That massive logistical question landed in the hands of our senior registrar, Christopher Price. We hoped to remove the mural in one piece, but it was inside a small room with two standard doors. The only windows were a transom-type above the mural near the ceiling. For a brief moment, we considered laying it flat on the floor, lifting it up parallel to the windows, and slipping it through the narrow opening. But we decided that wasn’t possible, and even if we could have gotten it through the window, we couldn’t fit the large mural in a truck suitable for transporting artwork.
In the end, the only option was to cut it into pieces. It made my heart hurt. My job is to preserve art and artifacts, not cut them into pieces! But the mural was being removed, whether by us or someone else, so we proceeded in the best possible way. A local art handling crew was hired, and they assessed the situation and gave recommendations. Christopher and I began making plans to be on site and bring along an art conservator. It was early February 2020.
News of COVID was starting to pick up, but we didn’t know how bad it would get. We made plans to be in Phoenix in March because the mural needed to be moved before the church began renovations. Then the world went into lockdown. Plans changed. The project was postponed indefinitely. March turned to April and April to May. In June, we started to hear rumors of travel bans lifting, so we booked our trip for June 8, masks at the ready. It had been almost a year since I had received that initial email.
When we arrived, construction was underway. We had to contend with dust, saws, and jackhammers. Not the type of environment for undertaking this delicate project. Not to mention, it was now June in Arizona, and construction means no air conditioning. Maintaining professionalism, in both attire and attitude, can be a challenge while burning in the “dry heat” of the desert. But the experience was amazing!
Figure 2: Photo of the mural in the choir room under renovation
The first day was spent taking detailed photographs of the whole mural and assessing where to cut. This was not an easy decision. At first glance the mural looks equally measured, with the same distance between the major elements of the painting. So, we reasoned, if we cut it into thirds, each piece should look visually balanced. But further study showed this wasn’t the case. If we cut three equal pieces, the columns would not be the same distance from the edge, nor would the large banner at the top. The central cross would not be centered on the panel, and the plants would be cut in strange pieces. The effect of this would make the painting off-kilter and disturbing. So that didn’t work.
Figure 3: Photo showing the lines for cutting the mural into thirds and highlighting problem spots
We had to make a decision based on the overall visual balance of the piece, not the mathematical measurements. Our next thought was to cut through the center of two of the columns, but then the middle piece would be too big to fit through the door and on the truck.
Figure 4: Photo showing lines for cutting the mural along the columns
Alternatively, if we cut just outside the banner, the side pieces would be too big. After much debate, we decided to cut the center piece slightly larger than the side pieces, though this meant cutting the moon in half.
Figure 5: Photo showing the final lines for cutting the mural
The next day was cutting day. The seams were taped off and the blades brought out. Our conservator made the first cut. All of us stood around her, breathless in fear and anticipation. None of us wanted to be responsible for ruining this one-of-a-kind piece of history. Thankfully, the cut was clean and the surface was solid, so nothing warped or pulled — as it would have had it been painted on stretched canvas. With much care, the mural was cut and covered.
Figure 6: Our conservator, Rachel Comingdeer Bolerjack, of Coming Deer Studios, making the first cut
Figure 7: Two employees of Arizona Art Solutions making cuts to the mural
Figure 8: Another employee of Arizona Art Solutions making cuts to the mural
The next two days were spent on packaging and removal. First, we needed to figure out how to detach it from the concrete block wall. Each day was one of discovery and ingenuity as we learned more about the structure of the mural. An exploratory cut on the side revealed metal studs attached to brackets near the top of the mural. Using a lift, the crew raised the mural off the brackets and lowered each piece to the ground. Crates were constructed around each piece and carried to the waiting truck for transport to Museum of the Bible.
Figure 9: Photo of the metal brackets affixing the mural to the wall
Figure 10: Photo of one section of the mural being loaded into a truck for transport
The room was now bare.
Figure 11: Photo of the wall after the mural had been removed
Church members who came to see the mural taken off were shocked at how strange the room looked. It had been a constant presence since Linnea Hendrickson commissioned the mural in honor of her husband, Ed. Members of the choir said they loved to look at it during practice; each had their favorite part. Dick Tenor loved the perspective, commenting on how the viewpoint of the painting seemed to follow you as you moved around it. Russ Henzel loved to analyze the technicalities and the shadows during choir practice. Henzel also said Bob [McCall] had an expansive view of God and that he was looking forward to heaven. Everyone I talked to expressed appreciation and fond words for Robert McCall and his wife, describing them as loyal members and kind people.
The mural is now at the museum, awaiting a frame. It has undergone conservation and will be installed soon. The church hopes to send members to the unveiling to see its new home, and I am excited to share McCall’s love of space and the Bible. As it says in Psalm 19:1 (HCSB), “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands.”