A piece of Portland and Oregon's art history restored at Chapman Elementary

The mural that frames the doors to the auditorium at Portland's Chapman Elementary is made from wood through a technique called "marquetry." It was created by artist Aimee Gorham during the 1930s. (KATU Photo)

An important piece of Oregon's art history has been almost hiding in plain sight for years at a local elementary school.

Inside Northwest Portland's Chapman Elementary is a rare piece of art that many students have seen, but few have appreciated. The mural that frames the doors to the auditorium is made from wood through a technique called "marquetry."

Art conservator, Nina Ollson explains, "Wood marquetry is a very ancient technique and it involves the sort of skillful use of different wood veneers. So very thin slices of wood that have different color, wood grain."

The artist, Aimee Gorham, created the piece during the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration.

"The WPA was a work relief project that allowed artists to have monthly income, a stipend, based on their production," says Ollson.

Turns out, Aimee Gorham created many marquetry pieces for the WPA, which are still on display today throughout our region, most publicly at Timberline Lodge and OSU.

Each of her pieces carries a title that is a part of the work itself.

Chapman's piece says, "Send us forth to be builders of a better world."

That portion can be seen over the door. This work contains other symbolic details as explained again by Ollson (referring to the figure on the right side), "The figure here is holding a wheel, which is of course a symbol of creativity, human resourcefulness, human industriousness."

After nearly 80 years of standing firm, the mural showed its age and some vandalism. It needed restoration badly, so a parent came to then PTA Chair Rosie Platt to see if she was interested in helping raise money to fix it. She was, and wrote the grants that started the ball rolling. Other donations followed, and in the end they wound up with enough to hire Ollson and her staff.

"We were fortunate to raise over $30,000 for the project," says Platt.

Ollson and her staff then spent this past summer carefully removing the panels, analyzing them, and then working on the restoration. The before and after photos are stunning. The damage that was, hardly visible now. And now that the piece is back up, they'll be helping the school and students move forward to preserving it for future generations.

"It's not only a matter of recovering the artwork, but also letting students know about the importance. In fact, we'll be helping to foster a sense of preservation and helping them to understand the treasure they have here that will enrich their learning," Ollson said.

Platt says they are working on developing some curriculum surrounding the piece. Portland Public Schools has other works by Aimee Gorham, but so far there are no plans to restore those yet.

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