DUNCAN — It’s a slow process and a daunting challenge for Charlie Burton.
The fine arts conservator has until the start of school — Aug. 7 — to complete her work on one of Greenlee County’s most famous works of art, “Greenlee,” by Hal Empie.
“The first day, I did a section that was 2-feet by 2-feet, in five hours. Now I’m up to 4-feet by 2-feet,” Burton said.
That may sound like a significant amount of work is being completed until one takes a look at Empie’s masterwork — a mural depicting the history of Greenlee County that is almost 30 feet long and measures nearly 900 square feet.
“I’m not restoring; I’m preserving,” she said.
Empie’s 1954 painting was mounted on the wall of the Duncan High School cafeteria, hanging just above the serving window. And that brought with it a series of obstacles that Burton must overcome — as well as provided some surprising benefit.
“The humidity in here actually kept it in good condition,” Burton said. “He used a Belgian linen, and not cotton, for the canvas, which is good. And the wood he used for the frame is in very good shape.”
But the painting was in a multipurpose room, used by the high school and middle school for more than just eating lunch. And in the 60 years since Empie painted the piece, it was the target for a number of athletic-minded young boys.
“You can see the damage from balls hitting the painting. They’re called bulls-eyes, or mechanical cracking,” Burton said. “And the really big damage was done by flies. They secrete an acid that just eats through a painting. So I have go through the whole thing with a scalpel and remove the places where the flies did damage, without harming the painting.”
Burton starts by removing the now yellowing Daymar varnish Empie used to protect the paint. But, like everything else associated with a work this size, that’s another painstaking process.
“I have to treat every area differently because of the different paints used to depict different scenes,” Burton said.
After the varnish is removed, she’ll flip the painting and, working from the back, work out the dents caused by the balls hitting the canvas. Then it’s another flip to repair the areas damaged by flies and place a new coat of varnish that will not yellow.
“Then I’ll repair the frame,” she said.
“It’s a beautiful painting; it’s a treasure piece,” Burton continued. “This, to me, is of the quality of our finest murals. It’s Arizona history.”
Hal Empie was born March 26, 1909, just outside of Safford. His parents owned Safford’s New York Hotel, but Empie chose another path — opting to work at Best Drug Store. That led to his choosing to enroll in Capitol College of Pharmacy and his becoming the state’s youngest licensed pharmacist in 1930.
He returned to the Gila Valley, working at the Best Drug in Solomonville until the store was destroyed by fire in 1934. That’s when he made the move to Duncan. He purchased the Duncan Drug Store three years later, working behind the counter until he closed the store in 1986.
While pharmacology kept his family fed, Empie was always painting and selling his works in the store. When he closed the pharmacy, he and his wife, Louise, relocated to Tubac and opened the Hal Empie Studio and Gallery. He continued to work on his art until his death in 2002.
The studio is now a gallery of Empie’s work, owned and operated by his daughter, Ann, and is open to the public.
Sharlette (Charlie) Burton, of Tucson, has extensive experience in the conservation of fine art.
She was the assistant for the instructor of art history at the Eastbourne School of Art in England and apprenticed at England’s William Lowe Studio, specializing in 16th- and 17th- century Dutch and Flemish paintings.
She has provided conservation work for a number of galleries and private collectors, including the Wilderstein Gallery, the David and Leonard Koester Galleries, Harrods and the Arizona Historical Society.
She currently serves as the conservator for the DeGrazia Foundation in Tucson, helping conserve the works of former Morenci artist, the late Ted DeGrazia, as well as work for private collectors.