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How the 1935 Murals Came Back to Life

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

The husband and wife team of Richard Keit and Mary Kennedy, owners of RTK Studios, tell the story of the re-creation of the San Diego Automotive Museum murals.

In December 2015, RTK Studios in Ojai, Calif., was commissioned to recreate the once-prestigious murals on the 1935 California State Building (now the San Diego Automotive Museum) in durable ceramic tile.





Black and white photos were provided as references, though considering the sizable scale of the murals, most historical details sadly were unrecognizable. Careful computer manipulations were necessary, though it risked degrading precious visual information. Sleuthing out the details involved endless months of research leaving much to be conjured inhouse and creating a shared rendition of the final artwork.


One rather frustrating obstacle, a strong vertical, dark and muddled on the “Industry” mural, at long last came to represent the monumental Colorado River Aqueduct, constructed from 1933 to 1939. All factors needed to be historically accurate to this era heralding the end of the Great Depression.


Other fun facts: The large ship in “Commerce” is the proud USS President Hoover Dollar Line turbine steamship. Built 1930 and lost in 1937, the USS President Cleveland cruise ship is docked behind. Harbor Patrol and dutiful dock-master plucked from the murky black-and-white depths. 1930s Essex delivery truck, Hudson Motor Co., lower right. This is fun stuff to impress people at parties. RTK Studios' line art phase for the project was completed in February 2017.


Employing the “cuerda seca” (dry cord) tile-making technique, the line artwork is photo-exposed onto silkscreens and a waxy medium is used to transfer the lines onto ceramic tiles. Four large silkscreens were needed per mural, excluding the upper 24 square feet of sky on each, 576 square feet of tile in total. It is a precise and physically demanding task to match each screened section perfectly to the next before glazing can begin.


Simultaneously, the glaze pallet was being developed, based on RTK Studios' knowledge of historical colors from this time period. As a nod to this bygone era, an artistic decision was made to add a burnished tint of antiquity to the overall pallet. Subtle variation is key to these nature-inspired murals. The sky, for instance, has seven separate dark-to-light glazes creating that characteristic Southern California haze. The far-back mountains nearly disappear into the atmospheric mist, more akin to the vapor than to earth.


No color references for the original murals were available. The black-and-white photos offered only light and dark clues. Over their 40 years of making architectural art tile, RTK Studios has amassed an extensive glaze repertoire from which to draw and an ongoing effort to create custom formulas that can cross blend with various raw minerals and complex glaze bases. Developing and testing are a familiar routine. The glazes, in a broad sense, are like liquid glass and applied as a painter would use paint. Each color or shade variation is a different formula that reveals its color only in its fired, melted state -- imagine painting in the dark.


Predominately satin-matte textured glazes were developed that mature while forming tiny crystals during the cooling cycle of the kilns.


The total firing cycle for the tiles takes approximately 60 hours, during which careful monitoring of the kiln is essential to balance the top-to-bottom temperature zones to within a degree or two, especially as it nears the peak of 1,980 degrees Fahrenheit -- in the ceramics world, a feat in itself! A slow cooling is important to prevent cracking from thermal shock. Luckily, the kiln gods were auspicious throughout this phase of the project.


Working in concert from mural to mural, almost every surface in the studio was occupied with this project in all stages of glazing. Alas, the largest studio table holds shy of four rows, barely offering a glimpse of the whole. The quietude of the pandemic lock-down eliminated distraction to be able to wholly focus on this project, allowing the husband-and-wife artistic team to toil and squabble in peace.


RTK Studios’ artistic addition to the building's rehabilitation was completed in May 2020. Installation of the tile murals began in March 2021.



Timeline:

Dec. 4, 2015 Receive commission

Feb. 9, 2017 Line-art, coloring phase finished

Nov. 25, 2017 Fundraising banners hung

May 17, 2020 All murals finished

Feb. 4, 2021 All murals transported to San Diego

March 4, 2021 Installation begun

March 12, 2021 Richard Keit and Mary Kennedy visit site

March 26, 2021 Scaffolding removed

April 13, 2021 Official dedication


Artists:

Richard T. Keit and Mary C. Kennedy

RTK Studios, Ojai, Calif.


Murals by the numbers:

576 tiles

12x12-inch tiles

3,053 lbs total weight, 5.3 lbs each

400+ glazes formulated and tested for murals

173 glazes used on murals




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