Buckhead Heritage visits 2 Historic Homes with Menaboni murals for lecture
I was first exposed to Italian born Buckhead artist Athos Menaboni (1895-1990) as a kid, going to the downtown Capital City Club’s Mirador Room. This Art Deco dining room, now remodeled as the 3rd floor ballroom, had swirling banquets and sculpted drop ceilings, raised seating and ramps, colored lighting, and 15 Menaboni painted mirrors surrounding the room. From an early age, my mother, also an artist, described how he had painted on the back of glass, as reversed images, and then they had been mirrored, so the paintings were behind the glass.
It wasn’t until years later when I started sculpting that I understood the true challenge Menaboni faced on this commission. As a sculptor, I sometimes first make small clay models, called maquettes, as a study of what I plan to do. Creating these is an additive art – you add, carve, and work the clay until you’re happy with the result (or lose patience). This is similar to how most painters work, adding layers of paint until they complete a work. But when you pick up a chisel and start removing stone from a block of marble, you’re practicing a subtractive art; trying to reveal a vision from the block in 3 dimensions. You can never rework or put a piece back on that block, and you tend to work from the outside edges in when sculpting stone. Not only did Athos paint the large mirrors reversed right to left, as if he was looking through the glass, but he had to put the outermost paint on the glass first, then build layers behind that. Just the opposite of how painters usually work, starting with their base layers and adding paint over them to get their desired look. More of a subtractive process, and very challenging indeed. It didn’t surprise me to learn that he had apprenticed at a sculpture studio in Europe as part of his early art training.
My parents ending up getting to know Athos and Sarah Menaboni, who lived off Northside Drive for about 50 years. They had a close mutual friend, Ben Sims, who commissioned Athos to paint a series in honor of his wife, donating several to the Atlanta History Center for prints. When my wife Ann and I married in 1986 he gave us his artist’s first strikes of this limited series as a wedding present.
Menaboni is best known today for his meticulous bird paintings, published and used extensively by companies like Coca Cola and Worldbook Encyclopedia. But starting in the 1920’s, early in his Atlanta career, he painted murals for famed Atlanta architect Philip Trammell Shutze and others. Some of the most historic homes in Buckhead still include Menaboni murals – the Swan House, the Goodrum House, Spotswood Hall, the Carr House, and the Albert Howell House. Over the years Ann and I have seen many of the Menaboni murals; our favorites are the extensive painted rooms at the Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island, and the eggshell panels now at the Brick Store Pub in Decatur.
As a board member of the Buckhead Heritage Society, I organized this March 2018 program on Menaboni. Many years ago I met Russ Clayton, a retired educator who collected Menaboni works, and publishes an online newsletter about the artist. Russ donated his own collection to Kennesaw State University and is the Menaboni archivist at the Troup County Archives, where the artist’s papers reside after he left his estate to Callaway Gardens. Russ kindly agreed to lecture on Menaboni, and Juanita Markwalter, owner of Spotswood Hall (and its restored Menaboni murals) graciously offered to host our program. Serendipitously, Barbara Hyde, the keeper of the May Patterson Goodrum House about ½ mile from Spotswood Hall, had just conserved their Menaboni mural, and offered to open their house, as well. With an invite to Buckhead Heritage Society members, along with some Audubon Atlanta folks and some of Russ Clayton’s Menaboni mailing lists, this program sold out to over 60 people in just 2 days.
Guests got a quick chance to see the Goodrum House breakfast room murals, and Barbara Hyde had a wall section to help explain the extent of the conservation efforts. Jill Baskin, the conservator for the Menaboni murals in the rotunda entrance at Spotswood, brought her portfolio to the event and explained her work there. Russ Clayton gave an excellent and entertaining lecture, and no one got up to leave as many questions were asked about the artist and his work. Russ got to know Athos and Sarah through Robert Woodruff at Coke, and his great slides and stories about the couple really made the artist come alive.
I learned that while painting the Capital City Club mirrors, they found the mirror silvering process dissolved the paint. Sara Menaboni painstakingly went over the 15 panels with a protective varnish wherever there was paint before the silvering was applied.
Lecture guest and friend Kit Robey, an Atlanta birder and author, had been contacted by the family to write an Athos biography many years ago, but was too busy at the time. She has since been to the Troup County archives with Russ and is in talks with a publisher about using Athos’ works in a children’s book. Another lecture attendee, Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal, is discussing a Buckhead Heritage event at the Governor’s Mansion this fall to hear about state history and art housed there.
Russ Clayton is a model for what a passionate supporter of the arts can accomplish; he is now working to mount an anniversary Menaboni exhibition at the Marietta/Cobb Museum in 2020. And it’s very rewarding when personal interests like history and art come together with historic preservation and a community group we love to support like Buckhead Heritage.