Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I Always Wanted to be in Fiction

Art restoration is rewarding and interesting.  But is it the stuff 
of novels ?  I wouldn’t have thought so until I was asked by author Jan Karon to restore a large group of plaster Nativity figures.  Ms. Karon's engaging Mitford Series  transports the reader to the special world of Mitford, North Carolina.  We get to know  Father Tim, an Episcopal priest, and various townspeople, and we forget that Mitford  isn't a real place.  The series is read throughout the world.

Several years ago Ms. Karon moved to Virginia from Blowing Rock, North Carolina-- a novel-worthy name if there ever was one.    One of the items that accompanied her was a large box containing more than twenty plaster Nativity figures.  I first laid eyes on them when my husband, who was doing decorative painting at her home, brought them to our studio for me to restore.
I think Ms. Karon’s description of the figures is most apt: "unbelievably ugly."  The paint was crudely applied and the color choices were, let us say, ill-advised. 

Despite their obvious shortcomings,  Ms. Karon  “saw the bones” beneath the surface and bought the figures from an antique shop near her former home.  My job was to repaint them, replace various missing sheeps’ ears and an angel wing.    

Normally, restoration work is primarily meant to restore a work to a previous moment in time…most typically the moment of completion by the artist.  In this case, I would say that my job involved reimagination as well as restoration.  Colors were chosen, when possible, to conform to the symbolism commonly used, (Mary’s robe is blue, for example), but in other cases the colors were based on taste and an eye for contrast between the figures. 

While  work on the figures was in process,  I learned that their restoration was going to be a central theme of Ms. Karon's  Christmas book, Shepherd’s Abiding.  In the story,  Father Tim buys a group of derelict Nativity figures  restores them  in secret.  At the end of the book he gives then to his wife as a Christmas gift .  In order to describe the process in a credible way,  Ms. Karon visited my studio and looked at the tools I used.  She did a bit of sculpting also and soon realized that hiding the smell of epoxy from his wife would provide something of a challenge for Father Tim .

It was a rewarding project in many ways.  Besides seeing myself transformed into a fictional character,  I also enjoyed the freedom to explore color on three-dimensional surfaces.  As a result, I have modified  my ideas about color and sculpture, most of which were formed during the welded steel sculpture era of the 1970s.  In my next blog entry I'll go deeper into this aspect of the work.

I was, naturally, quite excited when Shepherd's Abiding came out. Occasionally I would see somebody leafing through the book at our local Barnes & Noble.  How tempting it was to approach them and say, "Go ahead and buy it already.  I hear that the acknowledgement page is a real tour de force.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for this post and for your obviously wonderful, creative work. This book is my absolute favorite and I can't tell you how wonderful it is to have this background information. Robin