Inside a landmark Dallas art restoration
The number of colors in the St. Jude’s Chapel mosaic astounds those who see them up close.
From afar, it’s a watercolor of undulating shapes, but intimately the mosaic is composed of 800,000 unique glass tiles.
The mosaic façade is undergoing restoration in advance of the Downtown chapel’s 50th anniversary, set for fall of next year.
Ground shifts and water damage have taken their toll, and restoration involves removing the tiles, grouped by 6-inch squares, cleaning or replacing them and then accurately putting them all back so that the fragile mural will last for another five decades.
The mind behind this operation is Julie Richey, a Dallas artist who recently relocated to Oak Cliff, where she bought a duplex on Woodlawn Avenue and rents studio space at Bishop Arts Co-Op.
After graduating from the University of Dallas and living in Italy, Richey worked in arts administration and public relations. Then in the early ’90s she visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the mosaic floors captivated her.
She learned “skill-by-skill” to master the mosaic techniques.
Over the years, she’s done projects for U.D., churches and hospitals as well as the floor in Terminal D at DFW International Airport.
Damage to the St. Jude’s mosaic was severe enough that Richey had to go looking for a cache of historically accurate glass tiles to match.
All of the pieces literally fell into play with the help of Miotto Mosaics in Carmel, N.Y. The company that originally created the mural, Venetian Arts Mosaic of the Bronx, is defunct. But one of its owners, as it turns out, was the godfather of Stephen Miotto, whose inheritance happened to include all of the original tile stock from St. Jude’s.
It’s not a tile to match; it’s the actual tile.
The 30-foot-wide mosaic façade had twin 12-foot fractures, top to bottom, which lined up with a center I-beam, probably from the building settling. There also was a leak at one point, which someone patched up with silicone adhesive, leaving a permanent chemical residue on the tiles it touched.
Art conservator Callie Heimburger, who is from Oak Cliff, was hired to clean the tiles.
Another conservator photographed every 6-inch square of the piece. The photos serve as a roadmap for where the tiles should lie.
“You have to have an O.C.D., love puzzles and be kind of a magpie,” Richey says of her work.
The goal is to make it look like it was never repaired. The St. Jude’s mosaic has a slice right in the middle that looks like it’s discolored.
“I know people are going to say they can tell it was restored because of that,” she says. “But it’s original.”
Richey plans to offer workshops and “mosaic happy hours” from her Oak Cliff studio. She’s also doing a restoration on a 1914 prairie foursquare on Montclair Avenue.
The Downtown setting of the St. Jude’s restoration has been quite a scene, Richey says. New characters show up every day, adding to the regular cast of passersby.
“It’s not just for Catholics,” Richey says of the chapel. “There are tourists, neighbors, homeless people. It’s an oasis on Main Street. It’s an important link for the city.”