Alston Conley

Alston Conley came to Mountain Lake in 1989 to give a workshop on fresco painting so we could learn skills that we anticipated using for another John Cage workshop, which, unfortunately, he did not live to do. In the text below, Conley describes the process by which he became an “itinerant fresco teacher,” able to pick up the tools of his trade and travel to the Virginia mountains.

"I discovered fresco as a student at the Skowhegan School of
Painting and Sculpture in 1977. I had been making fragments of
contemporary walls in building plasters and paint. At Skowhegan
I noticed how brilliant the colors were and how the pigments
bonded to the plaster surface. Wanting to learn more about the
technique, I read the chapter on fresco in Ralph Mayer’s The
Artist’s Handbook and started gathering materials.1

The plaster, slaked fresco lime, was the hardest thing to find; no art store sold the material. I found a source in western Massachusetts for quick lime, the calcium oxide powder used to make fresco lime by the process known as “slaking”— i.e., mixing water with quick lime plaster to create calcium hydroxide (the desired slaked fresco lime) and then aging the resulting plaster. Mixing quick lime with water during slaking produces lots of heat, steaming off some of the water and creating the possibility of an explosion
because of the chemical reaction

CaO + H2O = Ca(OH)2+ Heat

Armed with appropriate fresco-making materials, I used two fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in the winters of 1978 and 1979 to make a series of true fresco panels with actual slaked lime, shaped as fragments of walls from imaginary civilizations. Then in the summer of 1980 I worked at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture as the co-dean of students with my wife Mary Armstrong. George Schneeman taught fresco that summer and it was our first meeting. Best known for his collaborations with poets, Schneeman made small frescoes on cast cement forms, often circular shapes (cast in garbage can lids) one inch or more thick, upon which he would apply his top intonaco painting surface. I was still making my wall fragments with wood lathing and the traditional three layers of plaster. I added white cement and horsehair to the first coat that was then pressed through the openings between the wood laths so that the plaster, squeezing around the inner sides of the laths, would hang securely in place. I needed a strong structural first layer, and the additives provided that. I spent the 1981–82 academic year on a Fulbright grant in Florence, where I finally got to see the Italian masters’ frescoes and visit behind-the-scenes at the Sistine Chapel during its historic restoration.

Frescoes aren’t known for being portable, so I borrowed Schneeman’s technique of casting small round cement “tondos” as well as trying fresco on Masonite panels. When I returned to the U.S., I started making icon- shaped panels of polystyrene, which was readily available as insulation panels. I discovered a new cement product called Conproco Structural Skin; it contained small plastic fibers, an alternative to horsehair, which added strength. I also used the material Acrylic 60, which when mixed with the Conproco increased its ability to stick to a nonporous material like the polystyrene panels. These materials allowed me to become an itinerant fresco teacher as they were much more portable."

 - Alston Conley