If there is a heaven for unappreciated artists, Andrew Jackson Bird is smiling there. Except for working on houses, Bird never made it as a painter. During an as-time-allows career that began during the Great Depression, he created scores of murals in hotels and bars around Springfield that are usually discovered when someone tears away an old wall during remodeling or demolishes a building.
If there is a heaven for unappreciated artists, Andrew Jackson Bird is smiling there.
Except for working on houses, Bird never made it as a painter. During an as-time-allows career that began during the Great Depression, he created scores of murals in hotels and bars around Springfield that are usually discovered when someone tears away an old wall during remodeling or demolishes a building.
“He was very frustrated,” said Robert Bird, Andrew’s only surviving child.
But Andrew Bird chose well when he created a mural for a tiny senior center. Painted in 1967, just one year before Bird’s death, the landscape covered an entire wall of what was known as the White Cottage. And this one, unlike so many others that have been painted over or demolished along with walls, has survived.
This was Bird’s last mural, and this one is loved.
When the senior center moved in 1976, its operators dismantled the wall and took Bird’s painting with them to Senior Services of Central Illinois. To help mark the center’s 40th anniversary, the painting was cleaned, restored and moved to a new room. The official unveiling was Thursday. His family doesn’t know if any others survive.
“It looks like you’re outside in the garden,” remarked Will Summers, whose mother ran the White Cottage, as a group posed for a photograph in front of the restored painting.
Bird’s murals once adorned Booker’s Tavern at 11th Street and South Grand. The Argonne Tavern on Washington Street. The Monarch nightclub on North Sixth Street. The Orpheum Theater on Fifth Street. No more. All are gone, along with the buildings on which they were painted. When Bird died in 1968, he got one line -- just his name, age and address -- in the death notices section of the Illinois State Register.
For years, Bird’s transplanted mural was mounted to a cinder-block wall in the senior center’s gift shop. Despite being eight feet tall and 16 feet wide, it turned into so much furniture as years passed and paint faded.
“I never paid any attention to it in there,” said Doris Rawlings, who helped restore the artwork. “It didn’t stand out like it does now.”
Restoration began last year, after Angela Oliver, director of development for the center, thought that the painting should be moved to a more prominent spot and started calling art experts to inquire about costs.
“They were wanting about $4,000,” Oliver said. “It was pretty astronomical.”
So it was that Judy Donath, director of volunteer programs for Senior Services of Central Illinois, visited the center’s art class and asked if anyone was interested in fixing up the aging mural.
“They covered the expense of the paints, which I think was $46,” said Francine Biasin, who, like other volunteers involved with the project, had never restored a painting before.
First, the painting had to be moved out of the gift shop and into its new home, dubbed the Green Room, which was built a few years ago. Volunteers pried loose nails that held the artwork in place, then carried it to its new home in four sections. They cut 10 inches off the ends to make it fit.
Dingy from years of cigarette smoke, pocked by nail holes and violated by cutouts for electrical outlets, the painting was a mess. Much of the color came back with a simple wipe-down, Biasin said. The next challenge was covering up seams and holes, and matching paint colors wasn’t easy. Biasin and three other volunteers found out why Thursday, when Bird’s family revealed his medium: He had used ordinary house paint on drywall. The restorers used acrylics, mixing paint over and over again in a trial-and-error process that lasted for months.
“That’s why it was so hard, then,” Biasin exclaimed.
Patricia Bird, Andrew Bird’s granddaughter, confesses she was a bit nervous when she found out that amateurs would be in charge of saving her grandfather’s work.
“I just had to have faith that they knew what they were doing,” she said. “I kept my eye on it -- I went every couple of weeks and took progressive pictures of it. I think they did an excellent job.”
Patricia said her grandfather, who had no formal art training, wasn’t paid for the piece. He spent many days at White Cottage, she explained, and wanted to give something back.
“It was a donation,” she said. “He didn’t have a lot of money. He didn’t have the money to pay for oils or acrylics.
“That’s all he had to give.”
Bruce Rushton can be reached at (217) 788-1542.
Bird’s inspiration for painting unknown
It is, of course, impossible to know what was going through Andrew Bird’s mind 41 years ago when he created his last mural.
A year away from death at 75, Bird painted what appears to be a springtime landscape, with blue blossoms on what looks like a birch tree and mountains reflecting sunlight in green and purple hues. A lazy river meanders across the scene.
A stone wall with vines just starting to grow leaves takes up most of the lower half of the painting, acting as a barrier between nature and the viewer. Tree trunks on either side complete a frame with the wall as the bottom, almost as if the beauty in the distance is being packaged.
Maybe Bird, a self-taught artist, was making a point about man and nature -- perhaps the renewal of spring has intrinsic limitations and can never be viewed in a vacuum.
Francine Biasin, who worked for months to restore the work with no pay, says the painting strikes her as peaceful.
“It’s very quiet, serenity,” she said.
How Bird landed in Springfield
Andrew Bird, a New Yorker, brought his family to Springfield because he didn’t want to raise kids in a big city, his relatives say.
There was no particular reason for Springfield, his granddaughter Patricia Bird said. He just picked it.
By the time Bird got to Illinois, he had already had several adventures.
In 1915, he went to England and volunteered to fight against the Germans during World War I, two years before the United States entered the conflict, his son Robert Bird said. He met his wife in England and brought her to America in 1919.
Tragedy struck in New York when a scaffolding collapsed while Andrew Bird and his father were painting a building, Robert said. The elder Bird was killed. Andrew Bird suffered a broken left arm that never healed properly.
Once in Springfield, Andrew Bird established a floral shop at the Orpheum Theater building during the 1920s. When the Depression hit, he closed the store and returned to house painting. Specializing in landscapes, he tried selling paintings at the Illinois State Fair without much success, his family says. During the Depression, his relatives explain, people had more important things to buy than art.
Andrew Bird never gave up his dream, however, and maintained an art studio at home and one at work, his son George Bird, now deceased, told The State Journal-Register in a 1998 interview.
Andrew Bird died in 1968. He is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.