Friday, December 31, 2010

A Witty Piece of China

I found a plate with a sense of humor.   Really.

If you take a look at the decorative band that goes around the plate, you'll see that it starts to unfurl like a ribbon. One could say that the designer is subverting the conventions of china decoration where the flat surface is privileged. One could say that, but one would risk getting bopped on the head (and justifiably) for sounding pretentious.  Anyway, it's witty design, don't you think ?  Maybe not a knee-slapper, but still pretty entertaining considering it's only a plate. 

Briefly, transferware employs engraved images that are printed onto thin paper.  The paper is burnt off during the process of firing and the ink design is left.  Because the process encourages engraved designs to be  joined in a collage-like way, many of the designs have a modern, almost cubist sensibility.  For more detailed information about the process, look at this illustrated entry in the blog, Nancy's Daily Dish:

For more examples of transferware and other interesting paintings, furniture and miscellaneous collectibles, go to River Town Antiques in Scottsville, Virginia in the old IGA space.

So ends my last blog entry of 2010, but not before I send out best wishes to all for a Happy New Year and a 2011 filled with happiness and joy in the small things.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The View From Above (Part Two)

       We last left our intrepid restorers in “The View From Above (Part One)” with erasers in hand as they began the cleaning phase of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia. We rejoin them now as they set forth upon… “Aerial Inpainting: Elation and Aggravation.”
Since the ceiling’s paint was matte, we used flat water-based paint to remain consistent. The quick drying time and lack of fumes were benefits while the dramatic change in color as the paint dried presented a challenge. So, in addition to our usual painting paraphernelia we brought along a very powerful, very loud hairdryer so that we could quickly find out if we’d matched a color correctly. No doubt there were people below who thought we were operating a beauty salon as a sideline. We would mix the color we needed and put a spot of it on the wall adjacent to the one we were duplicating, and then dry it with the hairdryer. I was never able to get it right on the first try and often not on the tenth, but eventually I would have a match.
To replace missing areas, we needed to cut new stencils. These we made out of thin acetate.  Below is an image showing the plaster and paint damage that was in evidence.  The image on the right is after restoration was completed.

The stencils were also used to replace areas that were previously restored with free-hand painting.  

Although our plan of restoration was clear, there were surprises along the way.  For example,as my husband, Bill Lapham, was touching up  some motifs along an arched window, he noticed a textured area that had been covered by the background of blue paint. The raking light coming through the windows at that particular moment provided the perfect opportunity to see a large and elaborate motif that had been covered up during previous repairs. Due to the texture, Bill was able to trace the pattern and recreate the stencil. It was an exciting historical discovery and improved the aesthetic quality as well.  

The Project took approximately three months.  It was definitely one of the largest projects we had undertaken and one of the most memorable.  We consider ourselves fortunate to have been involved in reviving one of the jewels of Staunton.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The View From Above (Part One)

The  ceiling at  Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia didn’t look particularly high on first sight.  What was it ?  Maybe 20 feet off the ground ?  It was only after climbing the scaffold ladder and looking down that I realized my fear of heights would need to be dealt with.  Soon.  Our restoration project was two-fold:  clean the ceiling’s elaborate stenciling and then inpaint the many areas that had suffered damage over the years. Since they don’t make brushes with 20-foot handles it was pretty obvious that I’d have to scale the heights. 
The apse at Emmanuel Episcopal Church after restoration was completed

Emmanuel Episcopal Church is a handsome brick building on Frederick Street, not far from Mary Baldwin College.  Its exterior comes across as strong and handsome due to its spare ornamentation.  Viewing it from the street, you would never expect to find  an exuberant Victorian ceiling inside, a symphony of yellow, rust, orange and cobalt blue.  In the early years of the twentieth century, close to the time the church was erected in 1903, a group of decorative painters was hired to create a wonderful array of patterns on the ceiling of the church apse.  At this writing, I am waiting for confirmation from one of the church members, but it appears likely that the company who did the work was J & R Lamb, out of New York.  (They continue to this day as a firm specializing in stained glass and the design of ecclesiastical spaces). 
                We were hired in 1994, about the time the church was celebrating its centennial. There were obvious cracks and some of the plaster had been totally lost, along with the stenciling.    Soot (a byproduct of the heating system), had significantly darkened the colors.  After the building contractor Gibson Magerfield replaced the missing plaster we proceeded to clean the walls and inpaint the missing stencils.  
                Upon experimentation, it became clear that the ceiling had been painted with tempera and would dissolve if any liquid was applied to it.  Therefore, our options for cleaning were extremely limited.  After trial and error we realized that the best implement for cleaning the soot off the painted areas was a “Pink Pearl” eraser.  Yes, the little eraser that every school child has owned at one time or another.    I went to Office Depot and bought fifty of them. Whenever anyone saw us up on scaffolding with our little erasers they made sure to let us know that there were electric erasers, but these were not practical or time-saving.  We did make one alteration for the sake of ergonomics by putting the eraser in a small c-clamp.  At least holding onto this contraption didn’t put as much strain on our fingers.  
Advances in eraser technology !
                The colors did lighten up considerably after the erasing.  After several weeks of this cleaning stage we were ready to get on with the painting phase where more variety and  challenges awaited us.
                As it turned out, my fear of heights diminished daily as working at high altitudes became routine.  The climb was definitely the worst part, but once I was settled on the large platform I actually came to enjoy scanning the harmonious space and looking down at visitors below.  If there had been a bathroom up there it would have been perfect.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Victory in Scottsville

Here is an art restoration memory from childhood.  When I was five years old, I decided to save everybody’s turkey bones after our Thanksgiving meal.  My goal was to reconstruct the bird’s skeleton.  I had visions of an impressive structure, something on the order of the Tyrannosaurus rex on display in the entry hall of Chicago’s Field Museum.  The task was much more frustrating than I expected and the bones ended up in a heap. This memory came back to me when we  began restoration of a large, ornate mirror that was discovered during the rehabilitation of Scottsville’s Victory Hall. It must have been the bag of tiny wooden pieces that did it.
                Scottsville, Virginia is a picturesque town situated on the James River in central Virginia.  Its three-block long business district boasts one drug store, a discount store, a variety of craft shops and restaurants. It is a tough place to run a business since it’s so far from the interstate and the road leading into town from Charlottesville is a winding, two-lane affair.  As a result, stores go out of business at an unsettling rate.  Paradoxically,  this remoteness and small town atmosphere are two of Scottsville’s main attractions and many new residents have arrived in the last decade, escaping cities and suburbia.  Both the new and old Scottsvillians (and by old I mean long-standing, not aged) would like to rely less on Charlottesville (25 miles away) for shopping and cultural pursuits.  And so, the reopening of the Victory Hall as a theater and cultural center coincided with Scottsville’s aspiration to be a town with its own identity.
The building was constructed  in the 1920’s and served as a theater for  movies and live performances. According to long-time resident Robert Spencer, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline both performed there. (The Daily Progress, “Mirror, mirror on the wall…”, David Maurer,  September 18, 2003). In the 1960’s, the theater closed and at some point its entrance was replaced by garage doors to accommodate fire trucks.   Amazingly, during the years it served as fire station and later, the rescue squad headquarters, a large mirror (5 feet by 7 feet), remained hidden in the back of a storage closet. Finally, in 2003, when the rescue squad moved out and work was begun to restore Victory Hall as a theater, the mirror was discovered.  It was battered and discolored from mould. The perennial flooding of the James  had taken its toll on the mirror, as it had on many of the town's homes and businesses.  Besides the discoloration, close to half of the carving had broken off. Fortunately, the glass was intact.

Had the mirror been hung in the lobby during the theatre’s heyday ? Did Patsy Cline arrange her hair in its reflection as columnist David Maurer imagined ?  Its large dimensions and ornate decoration seem appropriate for a theatre, but  nobody could remember seeing it in the lobby. Nevertheless, the Victory Theatre Restoration Committee supported restoration of the mirror as soon as they discovered it.   They intended to hang it in the lobby when work was completed and that’s where it resides now. 
In one respect, the reconstruction of the mirror was simpler than that of my Thanksgiving turkey.  The places where the decoration had been attached were considerably darker than the rest of the wood.  It was a matter then of placing the right fragment in the right silhouette.  Once the salvageable shapes were glued into place, we made molds of several of the extant motifs that were repeated (but absent) in other parts of the mirror.  Some areas were made by modeling and carving epoxy putty.  After all of the pieces were assembled, my husband William Lapham, a specialist in faux painting, grained the new areas and blended them with the original parts.  

                           A detail of the mirror after completion.

The other day I was selling snacks in Victory Theatre lobby during a performance of Langdon Mason’s “On the Air.”  A Scottsville resident, Mr. Mason composed the music, wrote the script and played piano during the performances.  Each of the five performances was a sell-out, or nearly so.  Scottsville’s dream of local culture has certainly come true, with local talent and a welcoming, flexible space for live entertainment and films. Victory Hall is now the home of the the Scottsville Center for Art and Nature
As I handed out Mars Bars and poured hot cider I would occasionally glance at the mirror.  We haven’t spent much time together, the mirror and I,  since I restored it in 2007.  I have to say it’s aging better than I am.  My consolation is that I myself haven’t had any work done. 

                                                           The mirror in the Victory Hall lobby.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Reasons to Restore

Painting and sculpture restoration projects present challenges of tremendous variety. That being said, there are two principle causes of damage to a work of art: accident and atmosphere.   The accidents are obvious.  A painting has an unexpected meeting with a rocking chair, thus resulting in a tear. Such mishaps are common. (So don’t feel too bad if it happens; you’re in good company!) Yet, even more common than an accident is the degradation caused by atmosphere. A painting is a record of every change in temperature and humidity, every cigarette ever lit in its vicinity, and every evening spent beside a lit fireplace.  Over time, the protective varnish can darken to such a degree that the artist’s original color choices and intent are impossible to see.  Fortunately, a cleaning can revive such a painting.
                I recently restored a floral still life, an oil painting.  The prevailing color resembled coffee with a touch of cream. Although an essential color at one’s local Starbucks, it was not contributing much to this painting.  The veil of brown was so heavy that at first I was not even convinced the work was really a painting.  I suspected for a moment that it was a print, until I saw the craquelure (age cracks).  After cleaning the work and returning it to the client, I received a very appreciative letter.  She told me that the painting had been purchased by her grandparents at the beginning of the twentieth century, when they were just married and decorating their new home.  Later, the painting came into my client’s possession and it moved with her from house to house, but was never hung because it seemed too dark.  The client wrote that now the painting “is proud and so am I!” 
                Of course it was wonderful to receive such a letter, but part of me was a bit sad to think of the years this painting languished in closets and attics because nobody had discovered its potential.  This experience illustrates the owner’s role as custodian of family heirlooms and keeper of history.  Naturally, the cost involved in a restoration is something to consider, but it is certainly helpful to get a restorer’s input before deciding what to do.  I am always happy to look at artwork, make recommendations and give estimates.  I do it free of charge because lack of information should never be the reason we do nothing to preserve a work of art.