Restoration of unique 1910 mural underway in Vermont synagogue

Vermont News

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WFFF) — Vermont historians and expert art conservators are reviving a mural made in Burlington from the early-20th century. 

The piece is recognized around the world as a unique survivor of Jewish Lithuanian art. “This is the only artifact—the only work of art—of a now extinct culture,” said Constance Silver, supervising conservator.

Today, the mural hangs in Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. But that wasn’t its first home. The mural was stored in another building for more than a century, prompting experts to restore it. Silver is in charge of removing layers of dust and grime that accumulated on the triptych—or three-paneled mural—and added a yellowish tint to the colors.

Silver and her colleagues say the artwork is a glimpse into Jewish Lithuanian synagogues, places that are few and far between today. “It represents the hundreds and hundreds of synagogues that existed in eastern Europe that no longer are there,” said Aaron Goldberg, Ohavi Zedek’s co-archivist.

The artist, Ben Zion Black, was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who settled in the state. In 1910, he was hired to paint the mural for Chai Adam Synagogue on 105 Hyde Street in Burlington. In 1939, the building was sold, and today, it’s an apartment complex.

However, the mural stayed in place for decades. The piece was coined “The Lost Mural” after archivists found it again in the 105 Hyde Street building. “As part of the cleaning process, which started several years ago and continued now, our conservators have discovered really vibrant colors,” said Goldberg. He says that, because so few murals like “The Lost Mural” exist, he wants to accurately display the artist’s vision and message.

On Friday, the Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. visited the mural alongside Madeleine Kunin, the 77th Governor of Vermont. “To see this mural survived and so nicely preserved and taken care of and displayed publicly, it’s very significant,” said Ambassador Audra Plepyte.

Kunin, who served on “The Lost Mural” board, called it a story of survival. “Why is the mural important? It’s not only a Jewish story of survival. It’s an immigrant story of survival so that people who trace their roots back to Italy, to Ireland, to Bosnia, or wherever—they can identify with this story of Jewish and immigrant survival.”

Art conservators plan to complete the cleaning by August 31. They will also begin planning the next step—filling in the mural’s missing pieces, representing about 10% that has been lost.

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