New Brunswick

Miller Brittain sketches restored by museum

Canadian artist and social satirist Miller Brittain's larger than life chalk drawings may once again hang in Saint John.

Restoration project will take 2 years before 11 portraits can be hung

Artist and social satirist Miller Brittain's sketches are currently being restored by the N.B. Museum. (CBC)

Canadian artist and social satirist Miller Brittain's larger than life chalk drawings may once again hang in Saint John.

Danny Doyle, a conservator intern at the New Brunswick Museum, has been painstakingly removing the decades-old tape from the delicate drawings inch by inch.

"I like to say it's very, 'Zen work,' I have to be very calm," Doyle said.

"Basically I'm going in and taken that off with scalpels and erasers and brushes and poultices and certain solvents and many other things. Once I have that off, I then repair the tears or the cuts that have happened to the drawings with just a fine tissue and a wheat starch paste."

The large sketches are nine-feet wide by nine-feet tall and are drafted on butcher paper. They were meant to be destroyed once the murals were painted on the walls of the Saint John tuberculosis Hospital in 1939.

Around this time, the bacterial disease killed about 82 people in every 100,000 but that number was 10 times higher for First Nations people.

Brittain was already a well-known Canadian artist. He did 11 of these chalk sketches.

But as war broke out in Europe, funding for the murals dried up, Brittain entered the air force and the murals were never created.

The sketches depict people suffering from tuberculosis, the treatments of the time, the hope for a cure – all superimposed with Brittain’s social commentary about the need for better housing, nutrition and pasteurized milk.

The sketches are now too fragile to be hung, but three years ago, Claire Titus, a conservator, found out that could change.

Museum conservator Claire Titus and conservator intern Danny Doyle and are restoring the 11 sketches. (CBC)

The Canadian Conservation Institute and Titus took six weeks to investigate the drawings and determine everything from the pH of the paper to the type of adhesive on the tape.

That allowed Titus to create a protocol for repairing the paper.

The drawings were rolled out horizontally onto a stage at a local theatre and then colour photographs were taken from above.

Due to the size of the sketches, space was going to be a challenge for the conservation process. The museum decided to use one of its large spaces and make it accessible to the public.

For a couple of hours a day, people can watch the restoration process and ask questions. Titus said it is interesting to hear the reaction of people who watch the process.

"It was wonderfully exciting and interesting to hear what people wanted to talk about when they were looking at the drawings," Titus said.

"Many of the people who came to see them, talked about their first-hand experience with tuberculosis. Some had memories of family experiences at the very hospital that these drawings were proposed for."

The project is expected to take at least another two years before all 11 can be displayed vertically.