Nestled amid acres of lush gardens and vintage, antique structures is something comparable to an underwater fantasy. Find Vizcaya's iconic swimming pool grotto, one of only two public sites in the world featuring work by artist Robert Winthrop Chanler. The space is in the midst of a significant structural restoration, which coincides with the museum's centennial celebration.
Usually, the pool is filled with water, which reflects an aqua hue onto Chanler's mural on the ceiling. Now, through a yearlong process, its basin remains bare, as the space is undergoing repairs after Miami's climate has taken a toll on the age-old piece.
"There were problems from the start," says Vizcaya's curator, Gina Wouters. "The materials just weren't compatible to the environment, like the paint being water-soluble. With all the humidity, there has been peeling on the ceiling from the beginning, which is why it's very flaky right now."
Chanler's once-vivid sea-blue painting is now faded and tattered, but its beauty remains intact. Many of the clay reliefs of objects such as fish and coral, along with most of its decorative seashells, are unscathed. Through Vizcaya's restoration, Wouters says, the hope is to revert the piece to how it might have looked years ago when it was competed in 1916.
"Removing the overlay of paint that has been done through the years isn't possible," she explains. "Right now, the urgency is to stabilize it. The structure itself is now safe, so now it is about keeping what we have here in one piece, like the clay structures."
Beginning in the fall, two graduate students will join Wouters and Vizcaya to dive deeper into Chanler's mural, investigating everything in the overall space for historical documentation. Following that, Wouters says, it will be easier to create a trajectory for the grotto.
"We need to figure out how to protect it from hurricanes too," she says. "One storm comes and has the potential to destroy it. It's already survived many bad hurricanes, some that had storm surge near the ceiling. It's an idea of creating accessibility, but also protecting it."
For now, museumgoers can experience Chanler's work through an aquarium glass door near the café or by peeking over the outdoor railing.
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"The thing is," Wouters says, "how you're supposed to be experiencing it is within. That's our next challenge.
"Vizcaya is all about sensory experience," she adds. "It's not just about coming here and looking at art. It's about touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and feeling — and at the same time, learning about Chanler and bringing awareness to this challenge of preservation too."
Along with the grotto, Vizcaya's Marine Garden, a hidden pool buried within the gardens, recently underwent an extensive structural restoration as well. It had been closed for more than a decade and reopened for public viewing last week.
Robert Winthrop Chanler's Swimming Pool Grotto Mural
The ceiling mural is housed within Vizcaya next to the café. To learn more about the artist and his work, Robert Winthrop Chanler: Discovering the Fantastic is available for purchase at Vizcaya. The book, copublished by the museum, is the first study of its kind in the past 80 years and gives readers inside access to Chanler's work and life. For more information, call 305-250-9133 or visit vizcaya.org.