Artist Mark Balma's Lasting Impression Work Continues at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis on What Will Be the Largest Fresco in the Country, Covering 1,904 Square Feet

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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 plaster surfaces.

"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. …