SM East alums lead effort to restore hand-painted tile display they gave as class gift back in 1962

Jim Rawlings (left) and Pam Gradinger of the SM East Class of 1962 led efforts to restore a piece of artwork their class had created 57 years ago.

The SM East Class of 1962 has led an effort to restore and display an arrangement of hand-painted ceramic tiles they gave as a class gift nearly 60 years ago.

The newly restored design was installed Aug. 21 just inside the gym lobby doors at the high school. Leawood resident Jim Rawlings, a 1962 SM East grad, said it had been in storage and was in a rough condition because of aging and having originally been installed in several inches of concrete.

“We said we’ve got somehow bring this back and get it rehung in a courtyard where it was,” Rawlings said. “Nobody knew about it until a maintenance employee saw it being cut out and said we better save that for something.”

Fairway resident Pam Gradinger, another 1962 grad, said Beth Fowler, who helps with class reunions, first reached out to them and suggested the class of 1962 restore and rehang it.

Zahner Metal Conservation of Kansas City, Mo., was then hired to remove the tiles from the concrete. The tiles had weighed about 400 pounds with the concrete. By the time they were removed, the arrangement weighed about 120 pounds.

Peggy Van Witt worked to restore and conserve the tile project this summer. Photo courtesy of Peggy Van Witt

A mixture of restoration and conservation was completed over the past several weeks by Peggy Van Witt, owner of Van Witt Fine Art Conservation & Restoration in downtown Overland Park.

The class raised more than $6,000 for the project. Gradinger and Rawlings gave thanks to Van Witt and Zahner Metal Conservation for their speedy and high-quality work on the project.

“We wanted to see this thing last, but we weren’t sure it was good enough to do that,” Gradinger said. “I think with Peggy’s expertise and Zahner’s encouragement, we knew we were on a good project. We’re just thrilled. She was just wonderful in the way that she encouraged us to save the piece. I think we would have just dropped the project.”

About 14 out of 60 tiles were chipped or broken. Van Witt used aging and renewing chemical processes to age the new tiles so they looked like the original tiles. It took about an hour for each tile; she estimates the whole project took about 80 hours to complete.

“Everything that I did is reversible, so in 100 years, if somebody wants to restore them, they can totally wipe off what I did with a solvent,” Van Witt said. “That’s the key to conservation. It was a challenge.”

SM East Principal Scott Sherman also thanked the class of 1962 for their dedication to the project.

“We love our alumni; their support is what makes the tradition here at East excellent,” Sherman said. “We couldn’t ask for better support from our alumni.”