THE new Hall of Founders at the University of St. Thomas's Minneapolis campus is redolent with the damp, sweetly acidic, odor of plaster. Though sheetrock has long been the standard in contemporary building construction, plaster is being applied only to the arched ceiling of this building, where artist Mark Balma is creating the largest fresco in the United States.
When the 17-by-112-foot ceiling is complete next year, its 1,904 square feet will be more than 1.5 times the size of ``Detroit Industry,'' the 1932-33 panorama that Diego Rivera fashioned for the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Mr. Balma is developing a contemporary allegorical articulation of St. Thomas Aquinas's seven virtues: faith, justice, prudence, hope, temperance, fortitude, and charity.
``The frescoes will be decidedly American, not European,'' Balma says. ``I'm using culture on this side of the world. This work can't be a pastiche of European cathedrals and doesn't have to copy those to be a long-lasting statement.''
A cross-cultural thread will run through the St. Thomas panels -
from turquoise pigments favored by native Americans to dragons, which are positive symbols to Asians.
As one of only a handful of artists throughout the world who continue to work in fresco, Balma says his affinity for this expression has been lifelong. ``As a child I was interested in making large drawings. I always got assignments to draw a three-foot by six-foot picture of St. Anthony or other saints.''
Appropriate for a fresco artist, Balma draws inspiration from architectural space. ``Fresco humanizes architecture as well as decorates,'' he says. ``It brings together symbols in a building that might otherwise go unnoticed.''
But the process of fresco art is tedious and slow. Michelangelo, for example, completed only one square yard per day when painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Balma finished only three of the seven panels this past summer, spending about three weeks on each.
Pausing on his scaffold to explain his project to a reporter and visiting art historian, Balma says everything about the work requires special consideration. Brushes are hand-made, utilizing the hair of wild boars. ``The acid in lime dissolves standard brushes,'' he says. ``Fresco isn't painting on plaster. The paint bonds with the plaster.'' Organic pigments for the work are hand-ground and mixed with water before being applied to the damp plaster surfaces.
``Fresco is a medium of permanence,'' Balma states. ``That's part of what I find appealing about it. A permanent message from one generation to another. Before people were literate or could afford to buy books, fresco was the poor man's Bible. It was a teaching tool - more than just decoration in churches.''
The technology of fresco remains unchanged from ancient times, and observing Balma and his seven assistants at work, one can easily imagine Michelangelo's crew in the Sistine Chapel or Renaissance masters Giotto and Raphael along with their apprentices creating other classic pieces.
Though many ancient frescoes remain important in the study of art history and have consistently appealed to tourists, the form is rarely practiced by contemporary artists. One can't take a college course in fresco and can only learn by apprenticing oneself to a master, much as was done during the time of Michelangelo and other virtuosos.
Balma moved to Italy in 1980 and apprenticed with the late Pietro Annigoni, then considered the world's master fresco painter. ``You can't learn this in a studio,'' he says. ``There's not enough space. And you work in a difficult environment.''
TWO years of detailed planning were involved with this undertaking before anything was done on the ceiling. Each day a plasterer spreads a thin layer of plaster on the small section the artist will complete over the course of eight to 12 hours. Since plastering itself is an archaic skill these days, it's also difficult to find a craftsman able to meet the demands of a fresco artist.
After the plastering, Balma's final sketches, called cartoons, are brought to the ceiling, held up by assistants, and transferred to the damp surface. A technique called pouncing involves the artist punching red-ochre dots through the cartoons. Connecting those dots is completed before the other pigments are applied.
For the fresco artist, weather is a constant consideration and a certain humidity is necessary so the painted plaster doesn't dry too fast. This precludes working during the dry winter in Minnesota and likely precludes fresco art in desert climates.
Unlike other artistic media, fresco is unforgiving. If the artist decides a mistake has been made, the section must dry entirely, then be chipped away and the process begun all over.
The only nod to modern technology at St. Thomas is air-conditioning and humidity control.
When the ceiling is finished, Balma will return to St. Thomas in 1995 to decorate 13 pillars with fresco portraits of major donors to the new campus.
Balma grew up in Minnesota, but now lives in Assisi, Italy, where he is also involved in a 15-year commission to paint the ceiling of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in that town.