Peg McEntee: Olympus High losing more than a beloved mural
Holladay • We walked through dark hallways, past empty trophy cases, drooping water fountains and abandoned classrooms Saturday, heading for what could be a last look at an epic tile painting.
Then we slipped around a wire fence and into a rubble-littered courtyard where, high on an aging brick wall, was the painting that captivated students and teachers at the old Olympus High, now under demolition.
The painting, completed over three years in the early 1990s, was the work of Rebecca Bullough-Horne and her sister, Patricia Bullough, a longtime art teacher at Olympus. Rebecca launched the project in 1992 after being told her cancer had been cured. By the time it was finished and installed on Oct. 4, 1996, the cancer had returned. Rebecca died in 1998.
And now, it seems, her cherished mural will be lost, too.
For years, the tile painting 27 feet long and 9 feet high served her family as a reminder of the vivid, fiercely intelligent and ferocious woman who fought for everything she had, married her high school sweetheart and had two beautiful children.
Rebecca and I were best friends in high school (we went to Skyline), writing poetry for the school's literary magazine, bringing Thermoses of coffee to class and sneaking smokes and tearing around in my mother's car whenever we had the chance.
One day, we took a bag of apples to the top of Emigration Canyon and talked and laughed for hours until we deemed that we had, in fact, conquered the world.
When I introduced her to my pal Bub Horne, our lives changed fast. They were as inseparable as Rebecca and I had been, as is the way when you're young and profoundly in love. They would marry and head to New York City for Bub's education as a chef. Rebecca would become a critical-care nurse and remain an artist in paint, poetry and prose, jewelry and music.
Labor of love • For Patricia and Rebecca, creating the tile painting was an act of love and hope. They always had been close and became even more so as the mural took shape in Patricia's living room. Rebecca sketched the design "A Celebration of Life" centered on a reclining man, with a woman and child dancing. They decided on the colors; Patricia glazed and fired the 4-by-8-inch tiles. Together, they assembled the three completed panels at the high school's art space.
Every year since Rebecca's death, her family has brought flowers to the panel to rejoice anew at her birth, on Aug. 20, 1952. They did the same on Memorial Day and the occasional picnic.
The family is understandably bitter that the tile painting cannot be saved. Patricia has talked to tilers, contractors and architects all of whom told her that the brick wall is brittle, held together only by a few rebars. The mortar is so strong that trying to peel off the individual tiles would be fruitless. Someone tried, in fact, and only tiny shards could be found in the grass.
Work and glory • When a big front loader roared by Saturday, the principal, who had let us in, told us we had to go. Still, we tarried, sharing hugs and patting one another's backs.
The day had been a reunion. I hadn't seen Rebecca's parents, Dee and Vern Bullough, for years. Same with her husband, Bub, and her daughter, Antonia, a writer. Until Saturday, I'd never even met her son, Logan, who's planning on medical school. Her brothers, Rich and Bob, were there, and Bob's wife, Dawn Ann, carrying Fey, a sweet little grandchild.
The Bullough family is strong in its love and faith. Despairing as the family members were over the loss of the painting, they had come together for one last look.
As Rebecca once said, "What I hope is the preciousness the glory of life shows through this work."
Artists' hands • The last time I talked to Rebecca was shortly before her death. She called me at work, and I lingered for hours as she told me about her illness and how she had endured chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Her voice was strong that evening, and we laughed like we always did.
Talking with Patricia and Dee and Vern, I saw Rebecca in them, the keen eyes, sculpted faces, artists' hands. I felt their outrage and their sorrow. I heard Rebecca's daughter say, weeping, "I'm just so angry."
It is far more than a shame that artwork of this beauty and heritage must be destroyed. I wish something could be done, but it doesn't seem possible.
Patricia still has Rebecca's sketch of the tile painting and now considers it as important as the work itself. One day, she told me, she will make an urn for her sister's ashes. It is sure to be as lovely as the "Celebration of Life," the artwork that sustained a family for nearly two decades.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.
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