Pipe Organ Stenciling
The Wesleyan Heritage Organ – Bigelow Opus 38
First United Methodist Church of SLC
by Tony Devroude, Artisan Organ
During the 1800’s, the “Aesthetic Movement” was in full swing. People of every genre were made aware of design and “taste” in every aspect of life. Arts that were once able to be owned by only nobility and the wealthiest elite were now becoming affordable to the common folks through the miracle of automation. Steam engines powered textile mills and factories that could produce fancy artistic items with embroidery to carving. They could own objects d’art just like the kings could only afford previously. Or, at least they looked the same to the common man. Books were written that directed the taste of the masses toward this aesthetic or that one. Design styles evolved such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and of course later, the Craftsman Movement.
This was a time when everything was adorned with ornament or art of some nature, nothing was left untouched. Thus it was with the Church Organ. Casework was generally expensive because it was a custom piece of furniture, so, pipe work was emphasized as the main design element. The most desirable metal for pipe work is Tin, but, being too expensive for the huge facade pipes of the organ, zinc was used. Zinc, however, turns a dull gruesome grey color over a short period of time, so, painting the pipe work and stenciling designs on them became the “aesthetic” manner in which pipe work was treated. Artists for this work were readily available, and were trained to produce artwork for production manufacturing. Stenciling was a common thing for furnishings, clock faces, signage, and a multitude of other uses.
When we, at Artisan Organ, received the commission to reproduce the design stenciling on the pipes for First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, the only record available of the design on the pipes was a “much touched up” black and white photograph from 1915, along with the pipes that had been repainted several times. The chore was then to uncover the mystery as to what colors they were originally and what was the actual design.
Hopes were such that the present layers of gold paint applied over the design were in such a manner as to be able to remove the gold paint and reveal at least portions of the original designs. If we were so lucky, it would allow us to piece together the elements involved and restore them to the original design intent. This however was not the case. For some reason there was no trace of the original design. We began using copper wool and carefully removed layers of paint until we reached bare metal.
A note of interest that while stripping the pipes, a “fire hydrant” yellow pigment was uncovered in only two, maybe three places. This was the first layer next to the metal. It was a high lead content pigment and very thick. Possibly, this was the original base coat primer. Could its high lead content have caused the deterioration of the stenciling? Unless someone who is familiar with this old process steps forward with an answer, we may never know why this unlikely yellow color was used.
What happened to the original artwork underneath the gold paint? I can only give three “theories” that I know might apply:
1. My first thought comes with my experience of restoring low temperature metals containing lead (zinc may, or may not, contain lead). In the past, these metals were first coated in a lead paint. Therein, I have noticed that a precipitant or slime builds up between the coats of paint and the metal and over a period of time, peels off the paint, thus necessitating for ascetic purposes the need to repaint the object.
2. The first coat of gold paint to be used on these pipes was lacquer based. If you apply lacquer over enamel, it causes the enamel to “curdle” and you literally “strip” the pipes of its undercoat. This would have occurred when the lacquer was applied, unless they were intentionally stripped of the design because of item 1, or because the lacquer was preferred.
3. If Milk Paint or Artists Tempura colors were used on the original design, they would not have aged well, and would probably have been washed off because of unsightly ageing. Thus, the need for “Modernization.”
We went through the process of removing all the paint from the pipes and taking them down to bare metal. Thus, we could use a suitable primer over the bare metal, and give the new paint a foundation that would last for many generations to come. One of the miracles of this project is that in removing these layers of gold paint, we were able to find patches of original colors, mostly in areas of the backs where the persons painting them gold were not interested in spending the time to finish them well. With these patches of color, we were able to refer to the black and white photo and match values as to where these colors were positioned on the original pipes.
Artwork then had to be developed for the actual stenciling. What form the original design elements took was a complete mystery to us. The photo from 1915 was fed into the computer in order to try to clarify the images. Even the finest Photo Shop Software was not able to make clear the fuzzy “blotches” that were assumed to be leaf forms making up the designs. The graininess of the photo emulsion rendered each blotch a “nondescript form.”
Add to this the fact that the photographer had “enhanced” the grandeur of the pipes by swiping a white highlight over the dead center of each design element, therefore obliterating the main central artwork of each element.
We first developed artwork by following the stenciling and design of another pipe organ (First UMC of Butte, Montana – photos below) built about the same period of time by the same organ builder (George Kilgen & Sons), but this did not work. The elements of the design and stenciling on the pipes from that organ were too graphic and ambiguous in shape. It did not have the same flow and definition of form on the pipes as the FUMC organ. It was as though the other organ had been re-stenciled by someone at a later date, much like ours, but without adherence to the flowing forms. Therefore, we abandoned the set of designs for the stenciling.
In viewing the old photo and seeing the people and other dated elements, my mind went back to the instructors I had when I went to Art College in Los Angeles. The heydays of these instructors were from a time concurrent with the building of this instrument. In trying to surmise the design theme under riding these leaf shapes, I envisioned the artists working on these pipes in a studio lit with north light, all dressed in their white smocks, like doctors at work on the patient lying on the table before them.
The vogue in design at the time was the Craftsman School and it was also the tail end of the Gothic Revival of the late 1800’s. This Gothic Revival was to continue into the 1920’s and even the 1930’s. The parallel adjunct to Gothicism was Heraldry. Heraldic forms were used in textiles, and of course in advertising graphics. These Heraldic forms were a favorite with production artists and their use became apparent in the Cartouche Elements at the center of the FUMC Pipes. By studying the cartouches, we could surmise the design style of the leaves, and thus by turning them in a natural manner on our “theorized” art work, we were able to recognize the elements and flow of the stencil design from the photograph.
The new stencil designs were then produced, and colors were chosen for each element by comparing value contrasts in the enhanced photo, in conjunction with the traces of colors found in the pipes while stripping them.
In Heraldic Design, the elements used were invariably “Symbolic.” That is, each element whether it is a leaf shape or a star has a symbolic meaning. So, in trying to pull together the theory behind this whole overall design, let us look at and try to understand what these elements actually meant to the artist(s) who created them.
If we look at the Cartouche Design in the center of the pipes of the Central Tower, we see a “Star” design on a bright silver background, surrounded by leaf forms. It might be that this is symbolic of the Birth of Christ. We see the “SHINING STAR OF BETHLEHEM” central to the composition. Top and bottom to it are leaf supports stemming out of a gold wedding ring shape. Leaf shapes are symbolic of Life. Jesus said, “I am the Vine, ye are the Branches.” The TREE OF LIFE has always been a symbol of God’s love for man by giving him life through Christ. The Gold Ring is the Father, sealing his love for man through this birth of the Christ Child. The ring seals the Covenant that Isaiah prophesied generations prior. This symbol of the Birth of Christ is framed in a living floral bouquet of leaves that seem joyous as a surrounding element.
Now, let us look at the Cartouche in the left and right sections of the organ case. Here, you will see an INFINITY SYMBOL on a red background. This Cartouche could symbolize the Death of Christ. Imagine the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ is surrounded by the living trees of God’s creation. He is pleading with God to “remove this cup, by Thy will, not mine be done.” The red symbolizes the Blood of Christ. The Gold Infinity symbol represents God as the “Beginning and the End” and places this infinity symbol over the blood, giving it “Life Without End.” Thus, sealing the promise of “He who believeth in me shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” All of this is encased in an Oval Ring that holds it and protects it, keeping it safe. Jesus said in the Book of Acts, “I leave you with another Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who shall lead you into all Truths.” Implanted over the blood are two Fleur d’Elise. These are a common Heraldic Symbol stemming from the French, but herewith, representing man. Therefore, we see the Father, the blood of the Son, the Holy Spirit, and man surrounded by leaf shapes as the “Living Promise of God,” all culminated by the blood of Christ at the time of the Crucifixion.
The mouths of the pipes are surrounded by leaf and floral shapes representing life and the Living Word. The pipes of the organ sing praises unto God. The words of these songs are eternal and true, giving life to all who hear them. On the tops of the pipes are stenciled a rather jagged and broken Crown, representing the Crown of Thorns and the suffering of Christ. Presiding over it all is a white symbolic Guardian Angel, assuring that His suffering is all according to God’s Perfect Plan for the redemption of man through His infinite love for us.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Email written to Scott R. Mills, organist at FUMC of SLC, received from Tony on 12/3/2014:
Thank you for your transmission of the proposal, signed and approved by yourself and the committee leader. I look forward to starting this project as soon as I receive the deposit. In the meantime, I would like to bring you up to date on the latest findings.
As you know, I have been trying to interpret the gray blotches (designs) shown on the pipes in the 1915 photo. I sent to you an update of the drawings I had produced on the pipe. I was not happy with the artwork, but I was following the artwork from the organ in Montana, since it too was by Kilgen. Much of the elements shown in the 1915 photo did not make sense to me as I have been working with period patterns some 50 plus years, with fabric and carpet manufacturers as well as interior and exterior architecture. But, I kept working with the design elements as shown in the photo. When I got to the Cartouches in the middle of the pipes and on the left and right, I suddenly saw what the intent of the artist was and all the “Rorschach Blotches” began to take on a different style. In the Cartouches, there is a definite Heraldry style. The blotches are not just design elements like in the organ in Montana, but are the gothic, a Heraldry Acanthus leaf style. This style was very in vogue at the turn of the century……Heraldry, Chivalry, Gothic, Tudor, etc.
So, I went back over the drawings I had done and looking at them in this manner, they all came into focus as being this style. The questionable elongations and fatness of them made sense, they were acanthus turning toward the viewer and elements of the same style. These elements could not be seen in the photo because of the grain of the photo emulsion at such a blown-up scale. I am very familiar with the period elements shown and was able to interpret them freely onto a new drawing.
I am very excited over my findings and can’t wait to show you the results. My interpretation, I feel is stylistically correct. Some details might need to be corrected if we find evidence of the artwork on other pipes as I go along but, I am happy that it is now historically correct. Also, I have uncovered 4 original colors on the pipe, and have matched them to color swatches available locally. The darkest color, found in the few stripes on the pipes, as well as in the Cartouches would have been a deep burgundy. This is the color wheel complement, so popular back then, of the green colors of the pipes. That will make your burgundy carpet feel right at home.