Nashua City Arts Restores Precious Fresco Painting

Sep 1, 2017

The restored Nashua mural stands in the Court Street building.
Credit Allegra Boverman

Renaissance-style frescoes are rare in this country. Yet one hangs on a wall in Nashua’s community theater.

At the Court Street building, summer campers dance and run through the hallways. The room is jammed and the kids barely notice the mural with its bright sun shining on Main Street icons, parks and river-ways.

Judy Carlson with Nashua City Arts says that for 25 years, many adults passed it by, too. “It never had a plaque,” she says. “No one knew what it was or about the artist.”

The artist was Lucienne Bloch. In the 1930s, she worked with Diego Rivera, famous for his frescoes. She painted the mural in 1991 in memory of a dear friend, Margaret Swart, a well-known Nashua art patron. The mural has been hanging at the Court Street building all these years. 

Lucienne Bloch paints the mural in Nashua in 1991
Credit Pancho Dimitroff, son of Lucienne Bloch

Carlson says the area was  well-used, particularly as a community theater,  and volunteers often pushed tables up against the painting to sell raffle items, or taped announcements to it.

“When we came and looked at it, we decided this really needs to be restored because it is a very valuable piece.”

Nashua City Arts raised funds to restore the piece and hired Liza Leto Fulton, a conservator. Fulton served as the detective, scientist and art historian behind the Nashua mural restoration. 

In Somerville, Massachusetts, Futon’s studio is dimly-lit with several easels. Micro-thin paintbrushes and palette knives lie on a table.

Liza Leto Fulton in her Somerville studio
Credit Sheryl Rich-Kern for NHPR

Fulton spent six weeks restoring the mural in Nashua. She pulls out a photo of it and explains that it’s more than just a large mural. Because the artist painted on fresh, wet plaster, it's a fresco. 

“There are only certain pigments that can be used,” explains Fulton. “The plaster is very caustic. You can only do one section of plaster a day and then it dries.”

Fulton drew lines on the photo - almost like a jigsaw puzzle - to map out each section the artist finished on a given day, with each section using different brush strokes and techniques. 

The mapping represents each day's work in the fresco painting.
Credit Liza Leto Fulton

Structurally, Fulton says, the painting was in good shape. Not too much flaking.

“But it was noticeable there were gouges and deeper holes that needed to be addressed.”

She dabs a little putty on a glass palette.

“In order to get it more like the consistency of the fresco, I added a fine sand,” she says. Then she adds glue. “And a little bit of water. I want to thin it just a little.”

Patience is as much a gift here as artistic talent. Fulton dips her paintbrush into a sunny yellow watercolor. The key is to preserve the artist’s original intent, not to make it new. 

Liza Leto Fulton works with an assistant to restore the Nashua mural.
Credit Allegra Boverman

Fulton says that Lucienne Bloch was in her 80s when she flew to Nashua to paint the fresco on site. By that point, she was one of just a few artists using the technique. 

“Here’s a true fresco, a technique that hit its height in the Italian Renaissance. And we find it here in Nashua. Painted in 1991. That’s pretty remarkable.” 

Bloch died in 1999 in California. 

Now, anyone going to the Court Street theater in downtown Nashua can’t miss her painting. It stands behind museum rope — as a cherished work of art.