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1995: Bathing the Gods | 1996: Whacking the Gods | 1997: Monastery Repaired
| 1997: Accounting Practices
1998: Day in the Life | 1998: Conservation Complete
| 1998: Baiya Revived  | 1999: Art Report

China Exploration & Research Society
and Kham Aid Foundation  

Baiya Monastery Mural Conservation Complete
Field Report, May 1, 1998
 by Pamela Logan    

Conservators Paola Azzaretti and Guido Botticelli  (right) are assisted by two Tibetan apprentices in removing gauze facing from a mural. Karen Yager instructs conservation apprentices in methods of mural cleaning

I sit high up on a scaffolding admiring a Tibetan Buddhist mural, which was just unrolled and stapled to the east wall of Baiya Monastery’s atrium.  No longer a gauze-swathed patient lying on an operating table, the mural is standing on its feet again, in all its colorful glory.  It’s a great feeling.

 Today is a day of successes.  First, our five apprentices detached the paintings at Palpung Monastery at a blitzkrieg pace.  I arrived from my audience with the Ugyen Rinpoche only just in time to see the last painting peeled from the wall and everyone raise their hands in a victory salute.  Yahoo!  We did it!

 The work at Palpung was an unplanned extra: nine round paintings, about a meter in diameter, made by the previous incarnation of the Situ Rinpoche some 50 or 60 years ago on the very summit of Palpung’s awesome great temple.

 The roof of that chamber has been slowly sliding earthward during the seven years I’ve been coming here; a big piece of it collapsed in 1997.  The murals were doomed, and engineer Xiong Xiong told me that if they could not be detached now, they would certainly be lost for all time.  

Sample page from a student’s notebook (click to see enlargement).

 Luckily, our work at Baiya was going well enough that we could spare the time, people, and materials to send a small team out to Palpung to attend to this emergency.  Led by American conservator Karen Yager, ably assisted by chief apprentice Deshi Yangjin and four other students, in four and a half days they managed to detach Situ Rinpoche’s murals.  Even as the final painting was being carried downstairs, Xiong Xiong’s carpenters were already building a protective covering for the gigantic Maitreya statue below, in preparation for demolition of the damaged roof.  Our rescue came not a moment too soon. Now the paintings will wait in storage until building repairs are complete and a team can come back out to return the paintings to their proper places.

 Finished at Palpung, we sped back to Baiya Monastery to re-join the main contingent of the conservation team.  Donatella Zari, now a Tibet veteran finishing up her third tour of duty, was getting ready for the final step.  Those familiar with the project will know that the murals at Baiya were detached two years ago, the walls and roof of the monastery repaired in the intervening time, and the purpose of this mission was to complete the last, climactic steps of the conservation process.  During the last three weeks, Donatella Zari and three other conservators had mounted the detached murals on a cloth and fiberglass backing, and painstakingly removed the cloth facings which had been protecting the colors throughout the procedure.  I arrived just as they were preparing to carry the re-assembled and rolled-up painting into the temple.  

Student Tsering Penlo cleans a mural fragment.

  Everyone had gathered: conservators, students, interpreters, monks, support staff, and half a dozen painters and carpenters who had been working elsewhere in the monastery.  Now, as the huge roll was being hoisted and navigated through the narrow, crooked corridor, they were all shouting instructions to each other in various languages.  “A little higher...mind the corner!...more tape over here,  please...Tsering, you hold it...get out of the way!”  The gaggle of chattering people followed the roll as it wended its way down the hall, around the corner, through a skylight, and into the temple.  They carried it to the far corner and stood it on one end, following an arrow Dona had drawn on the back to show which end goes up.

 Then, amid shouts and arguments and laughter and many hands helping, they unrolled it, aligning the mural to the baseboard of the new wall. I was busy taking pictures when Dona berated me, “I don’t need photographs, I need more people!”  So I ran across to the courtyard and summoned what few souls were left. We all took places in a 20-foot long line against the wall, pressing the mural against the wood as it was slowly unrolled, looking more than anything like a line of suspects awating a frisking by the police.  And what a motley line it was: monks, students, foreign experts, carpenters, painters, and even a cook or two stood shoulder to shoulder, working together to hold the mural in place.

Team members hold the mural against the wall in preparation for stapling. 

Pamela Logan injects glue beneath the surface of the paint, to forestall delamination. 

 Now the students are securing the edges while Dona and the other conservators inspect the mural for areas of delamination, which they will forestall by injecting glue beneath the pigment.  I sit admiring the thing in all its glory, remembering how it looked three years ago when the clay underneath was buckling, and I brought Donatella here for the first time...

 We’ve come a long way since then.  The work at Baiya is finished, but I look forward to bringing my now-seasoned team to other monasteries, to save what we can of western Sichuan’s ancient Tibetan art.

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1995: Bathing the Gods | 1996: Whacking the Gods | 1997: Monastery Repaired | 1997: Accounting Practices
1998: Day in the Life | 1998: Conservation Complete
| 1998: Baiya Revived  | 1999: Art Report