Bob Fay says putting together pieces of the past can paint a picture. Or uncover one already painted, like the mural found in a building at West of the Lake Gardens in Manitowoc after decades of being hidden, USA Today Network-Wisconsin reported.
A leaky skylight in the former residence of well-known Manitowoc philanthropists John and Ruth West led to the discovery of a multi-wall mural painted by nationally known artist and Two Rivers native Lester W. Bentley.
“To me, that’s really exciting,” said Fay, a preservation consultant working to compile a history of the West property.
Built in 1934, the Wests’ house now is headquarters for the West Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization started by the couple and continued after their deaths about 25 years ago. The surrounding gardens, started by Ruth West, are maintained seasonally for the public to visit.
Tom Bare, president and chairman of the foundation, said he’s always known one wall of the property’s former two-car garage had a painting on it. The art could be seen behind some closets installed long ago.
But he had no idea the art wrapped around all the walls of the nearly 11-foot-tall garage, which had been renovated into a storage room, until he was investigating the skylight during the summer and noticed a sky-colored wall with flying seagulls painted above the drop ceiling.
“What in the world is going on?” Bare thought upon the discovery. “Up until the last year, no one had any idea this thing existed. The room was entirely covered over.”
Covered with plaster, paneling and cabinetry — all of which were removed during the course of about six months to reveal a tropical paradise.
Some spots are better than others. One wall shows women carrying fruit in baskets atop their heads past grass huts, faded but still vivid in its story.
Another wall is less preserved. A lighthouse peeks above a section of scuffed-up concrete that once held a line of cabinets. Nothing but a faint outline of the painted shore remains below.
A bit of digging led to a few late 1930s newspaper articles about Ruth West’s annual Tulip Tea events held for the public. Those articles about the elegant social affair make mention of the recreation room with its walls painted by Bentley. Some photos indicated his signature was in the lower right corner of the west-side wall.
“A closet had to be removed to get to that wall, and you kind of kept your fingers crossed hoping that it was still there — and it was,” head gardener Don Cisler said.
That signature eliminated any doubts who the painter was.
“It isn’t really known widely that he was a muralist in addition to this supreme portrait painter,” said Gail Fox, member of the foundation board and Lester Bentley Committee. “In all the research we’d done, there is no mention of (the West home mural). It certainly was a surprise and a welcome one.
“He was very influential on art in the area. He was so connected to our community, and I think people can relate to it. And through it they can understand a different time and place.”
Why the mural was covered up by the 1960s is unclear, but the home underwent numerous changes and expansions throughout the decades.
The West Foundation hopes to restore the mural to its original splendor. To do that, though, it’s seeking photos residents may have of parents or grandparents attending the Tulip Tea _ last held 50 years ago in 1966 — that show the mural in the background.
“This is a detective exercise,” Fox said. “We’re solving mysteries here.”
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West of the Lake Gardens and the West Foundation.