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Experts Check Whether Hell's Kitchen Mural Can be Repaired

By Mathew Katz | September 13, 2011 1:23pm
Experts inspect what needs to be done to restore a mural at Matthews-Palmer Playground in Hell's Kitchen.
Experts inspect what needs to be done to restore a mural at Matthews-Palmer Playground in Hell's Kitchen.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

HELL'S KITCHEN — On Tuesday, the sound of the Matthews-Palmer Playground on West 45th Street wasn't of children playing, it was the intense discussions by four art experts as they stood on a platform twenty feet in the air and tapped on concrete.

The four were elevated by a crane, assessing whether or not the park's famous mural, "Against Domestic Colonialism," could be restored to the way it looked when it was first painted by artist Arnold Belkin in 1972.

Today, its crumbling remains still dominate the eastern wall of the park, though many of its characters have disappeared due to decades of wear and tear.

"These [murals] were done on shoestring budgets," said Kristen Laise, the Washington-based chair of Rescue Public Murals, a group leading the restoration efforts. "This was art for the people, in the streets, on these walls."

The experts inspecting the damage to the mural on Tuesday were testing the wall to see if the concrete could handle more paint. They were also trying to determine if the paint on the wall matches paints available today, and exactly where they have to fill in destroyed or faded parts of the mural.

The  were paid for by the West 46th Street Block Association, who said previously that the assessment would cost approximately $3,000.

Laise said it was likely the restoration would have to involve painting over a significant amount — if not all of — the mural.

"At this point, the fading is so significant, it may not serve the purpose of bringing back the artist's original intent," she said.

Belkin's work is one of the city's few examples of the Mexican mural style, which features designs reminiscent of Aztec temples and typically carry a strong leftist message. Painter Arnold Belkin was born in Canada, but spent time in Mexico and was trained in the style there. He was commissioned to paint the mural in New York by community groups.

"There isn't much evidence of Mexican-influenced murals in New York," said Jane Weissman, local New York chair of Rescue Public Murals. "Here, the influences are all different. That's why we need to save this unique work of art."

"Against Domestic Colonialism" depicts an anti-gentrification message featuring a bulldozer, luxury high-rises, and residents holding a pamphlet that reads "We the people demand control of our communities."

"It's a message that's a relevant today as it was then," said Susan Kiok, who was the director of CITYarts when it helped fund the mural in the 1970s. "The changes in this neighborhood have been enormous. This is dealing with that message."

Brendon Marie Hudson, who lives across the street from the park, said the restoration had widespread support from those that live on the block of West 46th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.

"This was a very distinguished mural," she said. "So we want to keep it."

Results from the assessment should come within the next few days. If experts determine that the wall can support a new mural, supporters should be able to set a plan for the restoration and move forward with fundraising the expected $75,000 to $100,000 the project will cost.

Assuming the project is able to move forward, Weissman said her group was hoping to complete the restoration by Summer 2012.