The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday December 5th

If Walls Could Talk

A behind-the-scenes look at the NCMA's conceptualization and creation of a religiously apocalyptic exhibit.

Stepping into the "Reverend McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse" exhibit in progress for the first time was surreal. Instead of a perfectly polished layout of well-lit paintings, elaborate wall labels and milling crowds, a mostly empty room beckoned. Scaffolding on wheels stood in front of the opening painting, a vibrant view of hell dominating an entire wall. Yellow light bulbs screwed into the ceiling gave the entire room the feel of a storage facility.

Curator David Steel led the way through the exhibition, pointing out the flow of the paintings through the gallery. He explained the system of balancing the works for proper flow.

"As with any exhibit we know ... what people's predilection for passing through is," Steel said. "And we want the best pictures to get the best locations. The really good ones must be isolated, and the others are in thematic groups."

Steel's brainchild, the Rev. McKendree Robbins Long exhibit, has been in the making for years. In 1988 Steel, looking for works by untrained local artists, traveled throughout North Carolina. During his sojourn, he came upon a Statesville show of the unknown reverend's work.

"'Reverend' was a good sign for an artist," Steel said. "Those shows tend to be really interesting."

After viewing the reverend's work, Steel decided that the NCMA needed to exhibit his paintings. Because of Steel's affinity for Long's works, he chose to exhibit a few of the artist's later paintings, despite Long's artistic training.

Long, a classically trained portrait painter, attended Davidson College and traveled to London for two years of art study. After driving an ambulance in World War I, a disillusioned Long returned home with a mission to spread the word of God and began a preaching career in 1925. Eventually finding his niche as a traveling Baptist speaker, Long also began, in his 60s and 70s, to paint apocalyptic religious scenes. In paintings and sermons alike, he expressed hellfire and brimstone religious fervors until his death in 1976.

His works depict a variety of colorful scenes, thematically organized around a mysterious red-clothed woman, featuring the torments of hell and the rewards of heaven. The NCMA exhibit also showcases some of Long's early portraits.

But before the exhibit could come into being, all of these works had to be amassed by the NCMA. The museum actually owns only one of the paintings, which depicts the artist and Dante as partners in a survey of a hell populated by Voltaire, Nietzsche, Darwin and Marlene Dietrich, among others.

To garner these works and to realize the Long exhibition, the NCMA partnered with Davidson College, Long's alma mater. Together, the institutions continued Steel's search for all things relating to the reverend.

Doug Fischer, head of the NCMA design department, explained the logistics of putting together an exhibit. The curator must first locate the works, Fischer said, then send loan request letters with forms to all collectors. The lenders then complete forms, detailing the insurance values, shipping and handling of the works. The success of this process is dependent on the willingness of collectors to share their artwork.

"This was so easy," Steel said. "People were just ecstatic to lend. Unlike with other exhibits, here we had more of a case of trying to whittle down the works to the best and the most interesting."

Once the paintings were located, Steel and two NCMA conservationists visited some collectors and evaluated the condition of the paintings.

Fischer said because many of Long's paintings were located in state, the NCMA picked up the majority of them in their own truck and paid for any of the resulting handling costs. Only the works owned by Davidson and two works that came to the NCMA from a New York art museum were crated and sent separately.

Additionally, there were several months of pre-negotiations, Fischer said. The design department went through four floor plans with copies of the paintings. He said, with any exhibit, such pre-plans experience about a 10 percent layout change after the pictures arrive. Sometimes, although not for the Long exhibit, the need arises to knock down or add walls to the gallery, as well.

But before paintings even reach the gallery, they must be brought to the conservation studios for unpacking and assessment by conservationists like assistant conservator Noelle Ocon.

Sitting on a low wooden chair encircled by tools of the restoration trade, the smocked Ocon blended with her surroundings. Her computer screen showed an infrared scan of her present project. Paintings locked into dark wooden backing boards lined the crowded room. Bottles of cleansing solutions sat next to a palette of dried neutral paint bubbles.

Ocon pointed to the palette and laughed, recalling that, during some of her restorative work on the Rev. Long paintings, her paints were all vibrantly bright reds.

She said, when paintings come into the conservation studios, they are photographed front and back in their original condition for museum records. Then, a treatment plan must be devised for paintings depending on the amount of structural and aesthetic work necessary.

"The Rev. Long paintings required a lot more work and time and resources than we had," Ocon said. "We had to find a middle ground of what was best for the paintings, knowing that we could not treat all of them completely."

Ocon said that some of the paint was flaking and that there were nails coming through the fronts of some paintings. The conservationists worked to clean mold and bugs off of the works and out of spaces between the canvas and the stretcher supports.

Part of the restoration process is considering the future of the paintings, Ocon said. She must think 20 or 30 years ahead when she makes corrective choices. "Everything we do has to be able to be undone, and the painting has to be able to be retreated," Ocon said.

Long's paintings, having undergone all these steps, were rephotographed for the catalogue and for NCMA records. They were framed and sent to Davidson for their first exhibition, and the NCMA focused on its catalogue and publicity for the exhibit.

Art Taylor, assistant director of communications, differentiated between the publicity work for smaller and larger shows as he stood in the midst of the developing Rev. Long exhibit. The design team slowly placed raised white letters on the white walls, creating alphabet shadows in a 1920s font, as Taylor wandered the exhibit and pointed out the freshly mounted wall labels written by Steel.

With larger shows, Taylor said, determining an advertising budget and placing ads in papers take precedence. But for the smaller Rev. Long exhibition, the NCMA has worked to gain publicity with local media. Posters were distributed to coffee shops and college campuses. Additionally, some area professors of 20th century history, Southern studies and religious studies were invited to tour the exhibition. "Mostly, though, we are depending on word of mouth," Taylor said.

The exhibition catalogue and the NCMA's Preview magazine added zest to the publicity process. The NCMA uses such catalogues to surpass the limitations of the physical museum space. The magazine is also used to present a taste of the exhibition to the community.

But the finished exhibit is more magnetic than any documentation indicates. As coordinators placed the finishing touches on the exhibit, colors virtually leapt from the opening painting's frame, contrasting with the simple, at-long-last finished white title lettering -- "Reverend McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse."

A podium stood against a far wall, and long black hand-held speakers held re-recordings of old 78 records of Long's sermons. Drawings filled the smaller spaces. A glass enclosed table held some of Long's papers, located by Steel during his lengthy search for information on the artist. The apocalyptic scenes combined with these personal objects gave a better sense of the passionate and intense nature of the reverend and his works.

Although the precision of the exhibit might seem effortless to the public eye, that seeming simplicity is the mastery of months of behind-the-scenes efforts by the NCMA staff.

"We do the unsexy stuff," Ocon said. "It's the stuff you don't see."

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