THE new Hall of Founders at the University of St. Thomas's
Minneapolis campus is redolent with the damp, sweetly acidic, odor
of plaster. Though sheetrock has long been the standard in
contemporary building construction, plaster is being applied only
to the arched ceiling of this building, where artist Mark Balma is
creating the largest fresco in the United States.
When the 17-by-112-foot ceiling is complete next year, its 1,904
square feet will be more than 1.5 times the size of "Detroit
Industry," the 1932-33 panorama that Diego Rivera fashioned for
the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Mr. Balma is developing a contemporary allegorical articulation
of St. Thomas Aquinas's seven virtues: faith, justice, prudence,
hope, temperance, fortitude, and charity.
"The frescoes will be decidedly American, not European," Balma
says. "I'm using culture on this side of the world. This work
can't be a pastiche of European cathedrals and doesn't have to copy
those to be a long-lasting statement."
A cross-cultural thread will run through the St. Thomas panels -
from turquoise pigments favored by native Americans to dragons,
which are positive symbols to Asians.
As one of only a handful of artists throughout the world who
continue to work in fresco, Balma says his affinity for this
expression has been lifelong. "As a child I was interested in
making large drawings. I always got assignments to draw a
three-foot by six-foot picture of St. Anthony or other saints."
Appropriate for a fresco artist, Balma draws inspiration from
architectural space. "Fresco humanizes architecture as well as
decorates," he says. "It brings together symbols in a building
that might otherwise go unnoticed."
But the process of fresco art is tedious and slow. Michelangelo,
for example, completed only one square yard per day when painting
the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Balma finished only three of the seven
panels this past summer, spending about three weeks on each.
Pausing on his scaffold to explain his project to a reporter and
visiting art historian, Balma says everything about the work
requires special consideration. Brushes are hand-made, utilizing
the hair of wild boars. "The acid in lime dissolves standard
brushes," he says. "Fresco isn't painting on plaster. The paint
bonds with the plaster." Organic pigments for the work are
hand-ground and mixed with water before being applied to the damp
"Fresco is a medium of permanence," Balma states. "That's
part of what I find appealing about it. A permanent message from
one generation to another. Before people were literate or could
afford to buy books, fresco was the poor man's Bible. …