“Here we are at the sump pump,” said Pablo Zuñiga, director of the Art Museum of the Americas.
And so we were. But this was unlike any sump pump I’d ever seen. The tall cylinder that held its machinery was painted pink and green and adorned with cubist faces, floating eyes and geometric glyphs. This was sump pump as modern art.
Zuñiga and I were standing somewhere below Virginia Avenue NW, in a pedestrian tunnel that runs between the handsome 17th Street headquarters of the Organization of American States and its administration building, a block and a half to the west.
The buildings’ circulatory system — water pipes and electrical conduits — ran along the wall on one side. Painted on the other wall — all 535 feet of it (and on the sump pump set into an alcove) — was a colorful mural.
At nearly as long as the Washington Monument is tall, Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró’s mural is one of the city’s most interesting works of art. For more than 50 years, it has pretty much been seen only by OAS employees. But, now, others can see it during public tours.
Zuñiga is a lawyer from Prince George’s County whose career at the OAS has included running its public diplomacy office. He was tapped two years ago to head the Art Museum of the Americas, a gem housed in what was once the official residence of the OAS secretary general.
Like a lot of gems, the museum has been somewhat hidden.
“Introverted,” is how Zuñiga put it, adding, “We’re waking it up.”
The Organization of American States was founded in 1890. Back then, it was known as the Pan-American Union. It was a proto-United Nations formed to allow diplomats from the tip of South America to the tip of North America to address common issues.
Sharing, celebrating and displaying the cultures of those countries has been a part of the organization’s mandate from nearly the beginning. That effort was energized by José Gomez Sicré, a Cuban emigre who in the late 1940s started assembling a collection of works by artists from member countries.
Among the artists Gomez Sicré championed was Páez Vilaró, whom he met in Uruguay when a Páez Vilaró mural was being demolished: The bus station on which it was painted was being torn down.
Gomez Sicré told him he had the perfect place for a new mural. “We can’t pay you,” Gomez Sicré said. “But it’s going to be a historic spot.”
That was the tunnel.
The artist arrived in Washington in November 1960 and set to work. Art students from the University of Maryland and the Corcoran School of Art three blocks away were enlisted to help out. Some, Zuñiga said, donned roller skates so they could quickly ferry supplies along the tunnel.
“Carlos would shout, ‘I need yellow paint,’ and someone would get it,” Zuñiga said.
The project used 900 pounds of paint — contributed by the Inca Paint Co. of Uruguay — and 400 paint brushes. In three weeks, the mural — called “Roots of Peace” — was finished.
Páez Vilaró divided the work into 10 parts, each highlighting a different pillar of the OAS at the time. They included the eradication of ignorance, racial tolerance, technical cooperation, the preservation of folklore and closely-knit markets.
“It’s not just a painting, it’s a diplomatic statement,” Zuñiga said.
“Roots of Peace” is a long, colorful ribbon. Backgrounds of bright primary colors are emblazoned with Picassoesque figures and black-bordered symbols reminiscent of the Nazca Lines: wheels, fish, eyes . . .
A humid tunnel that’s prone to flooding — that sump pump is not for show — is not the best setting for a work of art. Before his death in 2014, Páez Vilaró returned twice to refurbish the mural, which amounted to repainting it almost entirely. It was last repainted in 2002 with the help of Roberto Arce.
Arce returned this year to fix some crumbling portions. If the museum can raise the money, he will repaint it again.
Zuñiga said Páez Vilaró hoped the diplomats who walked along the mural would gain inspiration from it.
“Every time I see it,” he said, “I see something different.”
The Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW, is open from 10 to 5 Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. Currently on display is an exhibit of Páez Vilaró works on canvas and an exhibit called “Cabezas (Heads),” featuring the haunting paintings of Cuban-born Rafael Soriano (1920-2015).
Guided tunnel tours are at noon this Thursday and Aug. 29. The cost is $10, and reservations are required. Visit museum.oas.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.