Published October 18, 2022
Sometimes, it takes a community to make a miracle.
At other times, just one person deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the marvel.
In the case of the Rafael Navarro Barajas murals, recently rescued from oblivion at the Medical Park Tower on 38th Street and now on display at Mexic-Arte Museum downtown, musician and activist Sara Hickman led the charge from the start.
“Never doubt that, as a lone voice who sees a problem, you can start a choir,” Hickman said after an exhibit of the murals opened on Sept. 16 at the museum.
Hers is a story to emulate: On the way to a medical appointment in the summer of 2020, Hickman noticed a design display about planned changes to the tower’s lobby. Absent from the plans were “The Origins of Medicine,” a pair of 1967 mythical/scientific murals by Mexican artist Navarro Barajas, originally commissioned by visionary Austin building developer M.K. Hage. (His descendants played a huge role in the recent rescue.)
“I was seriously alarmed,” Hickman said. “I asked my doctor if he knew why the murals were missing in the illustration announcing the updating of the building. He said he didn’t know anything about it. Then I asked the receptionist — on my way out — and she didn’t know anything about it either.”
Online, Hicks discovered that Medical Park Tower, originally designed by noted firm Fehr & Granger, had been purchased by Lillibridge, a healthcare property management and leasing firm based in Chicago. Hickman wrote emails and made phone calls to a Lillibridge manager.
“I felt he did not understand the importance of these phenomenal murals and how much they meant to the people of Austin,” Hickman said. “In the beginning, I was told they were going to be painted over. … Then it was changed to walling over the murals, and I argued that could be damaging, as well. What about water leaks — or pests — damaging the murals?”
The public follows Hickman’s lead
On Aug. 18, 2020, the American-Statesman reported on the controversy.
A spokeswoman for Chicago-based Lillibridge said that, rather than risk removing the canvas directly, the company planned to “encapsulate” the murals.
Yet Austin painting conservator Mark van Gelder, who worked on the murals after they had been vandalized in 1984, told me that there could be another option: Take out sections of the walls behind the beloved murals that are likely not load-bearing.
“They could be removed,” van Gelder said. “The way to remove them is cut the wall out, if they are not structural, and then rebuild that section of the wall.”
Meanwhile, Hickman staged a solo sit-in directly in front of the murals where she gathered signatures on a paper petition.
“Before long, I’d gained the attention of the manager of the building,” Hickman said. “She came down and told me I needed to leave. I decided to go online, starting a digital petition, which gathered thousands of signatures on behalf of saving the murals and keeping them on display right where they were — in the building they were intended to be marveled over and intentionally created for — the building is painted in one of the murals.”
Hickman lined up some powerful supporters — Sylvia Orozco, director of Mexic-Arte Museum; Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo; architectural historian Charles Peveto; the daughters of M.K. and Nettie Hage; and representatives from the Mexican Consulate.
They leaned on Lillibridge. Through the insistence and perseverance of the Hage daughters, Lillibridge was convinced to change their direction and had the murals removed from building in 2021.
Reunion beneath the murals at Mexic-Arte
“The Hage family acquired the murals and made a significant contribution to repair and restore them,” said museum director Orozco. “This summer, the Nettie and M.K. Hage daughters — Jennifer, Patti, Charlotte and Robin — proudly donated the murals to Mexic-Arte Museum.”
On Sept. 16, the Hages, Hickman and other campaigners gathered beneath the murals at a lively reception. They saluted Navarro Barajas, who studied art, philosophy and religion in Mexico, Europe and the United States.
The reception mirrored one held 55 years ago before the murals were first installed in Austin.
“On the afternoon and evening of Aug. 25, 1967, a brilliant company gathered in the ancient Teatro Arbeu in Mexico City to see for the first and last time in Mexico the two murals Rafael Navarro has executed for Medical Park Tower in Austin,” Thomas Cranfill wrote that year. “The murals, oil on canvas, each 9 feet tall and 29 feet long, are soon to be divested of their stretcher sticks, rolled up, and sent to Austin.”
They came to the right place.
“The beginnings seemed not impossible to me, but highly frustrating,” Hickman said of her campaign. “The fact that I was upset and took action, followed by enormous community support, well, I just want to share the great news that Señor Navarro Barajas’ murals were carefully removed from Medical Park Tower last year and now reside safely in our beloved Mexic-Arte Museum here in Austin.”
If you go: ‘The Origins of Medicine’
When: On display through Feb. 23
Where: Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress Ave.
Tickets: Up to $7
©2022 Austin American-Statesman.