Artist tackles mural restoration, Nazis and Magneto
By ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN
MARFA – For the past eight months, Aureliano “Yano” Saul Rivera-Lerman has been working to restore murals painted by German prisoners of war detained at Fort D.A. Russelll during World War II.
The murals are on walls at was once the officer’s club for United States soldiers stationed at Marfa. The structure is now called Building 98, home of the International Woman’s Foundation.
Mona Blocker Garcia and her husband Rodolfo “Rudy” Garcia bought the deteriorating building in 2001 and have since given it new life and have handed it over to the International Woman’s Foundation, whose board of directors Mona Garcia sits on. The building was put on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service in 2004 and was designated a historic site by the Texas Historical Commission in 2005.
“I’m really proud of that,” Mona Garcia said of the building’s national and state historic designations. “Had I not bought that building, it would have fallen down.”
According to the foundation’s literature, 185 German soldiers from General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps were housed at Fort D.A. Russell. Two of those POWs, Hans Jurgen Press and Robert Hampel, are the artists who painted the floor to ceiling murals in Building 98’s gala dining room and library.
Yano, the fedora-wearing artist, came to Marfa like many others before him, through the Chinati Foundation’s internship program. Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Yano split his time between San Juan and the San Francisco Bay area.
He studied art at the University of California, Santa Cruz and spent an additional two years studying art history and chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.
While at Chinati, Yano worked with Conservator Bettina Landgrebe on restoring Donald Judd’s 15 concrete works on the foundation’s grounds.
After his internship ended, Yano had intentions of sticking around Marfa. “There was just a window of opportunity,” Yano explained of how he ended up living and working at Building 98. He met Mona Garcia at Planet Marfa and struck up a conversation. “I went up to Mona and said I’d like to stay in Marfa and can I have a crack at restoring your murals. She took my resume, took it to her board, the board said yes and I’ve been here ever since,” Yano said.
Speaking to the condition of the murals, Yano said, “They were in need (of conservation). The mural was flaking off the wall and falling apart rapidly. Mona needed some people to do it. I showed up and I said I’ll do it for peanuts. I’m doing it for room and board.” Yano has been working alone for the past eight months on the project.
“It’s massive in my mind,” Yano said of the scope of the restoration, “It’s enormous. I came into the room and I saw the condition of the mural and I started crying and I started freaking out. I got down on my knees, I closed my eyes and the stress began,” he said tongue-in-cheek. Mona Garcia verified this. “It scared him, but he’s done such a wonderful job. He’s very intelligent and intuitive,” she said.
Rather than employing difficult restoration techniques, which made Yano a bit uneasy considering the history behind the murals and the ramifications of damaging the wall paintings, he instead pursued a simpler approach.
“I chickened out. It’s like doing surgery,” he said of complicated conservation methods, “It’s daunting.”
Instead, “All I did was very basic. I consolidated the mural’s paint. It was flaking and cracking like a giant exfoliating snakeskin. I went in with a tiny brush and painted conservator’s grade glue over the surface of the cracks and hit it with a heat gun and tacked it down with an iron and a piece of Mylar,” Yano said of his procedure. “I stopped it from falling apart. I swear to God it was falling apart.”
As part of the restoration, Yano had to fill in missing gaps in the murals, a victim of water damage. “I’ve repainted all of the missing parts,” he said, though he had no photographs of the original mural to go off of. “It was just me, my artistic interpretation,” he said of painting missing parts of the mural.
“Mostly it’s just a repeating pattern. There was a landscape where I had to invent. It’s intuitive guessing.”
Working on the mural restoration has not only been a means to perfect his craft, it has also been an enlightening experience that has questioned his morals, ethics, and beliefs. Yano, who is Jewish, discussed his feelings on restoring paintings by World War II German prisoners of war.
“It matters because I’m Jewish. My instinct is always to bring up the Holocaust in some way. I recognize that in American prison camps, prisoners were painting murals. In German prison camps (during the war), people were being mass murdered. I have family who survived the Holocaust. There’s a knee jerk reaction to say German soldiers during World War II equals Nazi. That’s knee jerk, even though it isn’t true. The guys who were here pretty much weren’t Nazis,” he explained, saying the German Afrika Korps soldiers, as a whole weren’t convicted of war crimes.
“These guys were not in Poland committing genocide. They weren’t shooting grandmas in the forest. They weren’t at all connected to the death camps.”
The emotions evoked by the mural restoration spurred an idea for an art installation for Yano, which will take place July 24 in Building 98.
“This is my personal installation. My working title is Magneto After Therapy aka My Sympathy for the Germans.”
Magneto, yes, the X-Men comic book villain, is a character that Yano indentifies with to a certain degree, or at the very least sees some similarities.
“My gut reaction is when I think German from World War II I think Nazi. I’m guilty of that hasty generalization. It’s not totally fair. Magneto’s generalization is that human equals Nazi because Magneto grew up in Auschwitz and the Nazis did experiments on him. Being Jewish, working on this murals painted by German prisons of war from World War II, I’ve had to come to terms with that. Maybe that gut reaction isn’t quite so.”
Yano explained that his coming to terms with his beliefs over the course of working on the murals is something that Magneto could possibly do towards humans. Channeling his feelings through Magneto, Yano is, “Envisioning for this installation Magneto coming to terms with his hatred with all humans. I’m afraid I’m at risk of kitschifying the Holocaust. It’s not about the Holocaust it’s about logic.”
“Originally I had this plan of doing an image of Magneto destroying the murals. He’s angry at the Holocaust, angry at humans, and he comes into the room thought the landscape, sets the landscape on fire and destroys the walls and leaves the room totally empty. Then I thought to myself, that’s a little angry.
Magneto is me, I am Magneto,” he said, laughing uncontrollably at the last part.
Those who will view his installation will see an image of Yano dressed as Magneto projected on wall talking about how his behavior is a result of unresolved trauma after seeking therapy. It’s about possessing trauma. “I’m going to try and enter Magneto’s consciousness and see how he healed and no longer generalizes about humans and Nazis.”
Story filed under: Arts