Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Greetings from Antarctica

It is the middle of November and the weather is frigid.  At least by Virginia standards. I wear multiple layers and even a wool cap merely to cross the street to my art studio. These days, however, I do not complain about the cold nearly as much as I usually do.   The oil painting I am restoring puts all my cold weather gripes in perspective.  It depicts a tumbledown shack located in Antarctica, the hut used by the explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton.

Shackleton came from an Anglo-Irish family and  was one of the leading explorers of Antarctica, traveling there a total of four times, three times as the leader of the expedition.The hut was built in 1908 and was intended as a base from which to reach the South Pole.On this particular trip, they came within  97 miles of it but had to turn back. Until I'd researched Shackleton I had not realized that reaching Antarctica was considered less of an achievement than reaching South Pole. Some people really are perfectionists.

The artist of the work I am restoring is Robert Hogue who was the expedition artist for a trip to Antarctica in 1956-1957.  He actually did the painting on site and here is a photograph of him at work, fifty years after Shackleton's expedition. 

The owner of the painting, Steven Dibbern, provided me with this image and it is very moving to me to see the very painting I am cleaning  when it was a brand new work.  If only we could glimpse the artist's face !   

Mr. Dibbern, who has also been to Antarctica multiple times, did extensive research on the artist.  If anybody has any leads on further information, please contact me and I will pass them along..  Below I have included a portion of Mr. Dibbern's essay on Robert Hogue.  I hope you will find it as fascinating as I did:

  Robert E. Hogue went South during the Austral summer, 1956-57 as a contract artist on several of the Navy and Coast Guard icebreakers.  His first job was to paint the invertebrate specimens from Tierney-Holly’s marine biology dredge nets.  Watercolor was and still is very useful in recording and emphasizing the subtle colors of marine organisms in ways that a camera misses.  Many of these paintings were sent with specimens to the US National Museum Natural History Division (Smithsonian).  He also recorded a number of fish, the so called “bloodless” (no red blood cells) Antarctic fish with a natural anti-freeze in their blood. 
  Bob painted and sketched extensively on the various ships he was on and also at some of the historic sites in McMurdo Sound.  Most are charcoals, pencil sketches, pastels and watercolors.  JQ told me that Bob had not come to Antarctica prepared to spend enough time to do oil painting.  He found that he did have enough time at McMurdo Sound however to do a fine oil rendering of Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. The problem was that he had no canvases.  This was solved by the bosun on the Glacier who stretched ships canvas over a frame he made and sized it in preparation for painting with white lead paint!  JQ has a photo of Bob doing that painting in VERY cold plein air.
  Various paintings and sketches of life onboard icebreakers were later displayed in the halls of the Pentagon.  I have not been able to track where they went from there.  He appears to have gotten around quite a bit as his work includes art from the sea ice at McMurdo, Cape Royds, Hut Point, Little America V, Cape Hallet, Wellington and elsewhere.  Some are naval scenes with ships and equipment and sailors, while others are scenes of “sea smoke”, icebergs, and the seaward face of the Ross Ice Shelf.

  The only further information that I have is that after his Antarctic stay Hogue worked for the Smithsonian.  In November 1959 the Natural History Museum announced that he had painted the backgrounds for the famous Hall of the World of Mammals display.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mural Restoration Take Two

In my previous post, I described the initial stages of restoration work on a mural at the First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville , Virginia.  Since the painting was unvarnished and  many of the paint colors had faded, I could only clean a superficial layer of grime.    I met with the Board of Trustees to discuss expanding the scope of the job to include overpainting of the original.  We sat down and several members took out laptops to display the original mural in the collection of the Vatican.  The question everyone was asking was, what would the artist Ada Quarlest (the artist of the church's mural) have done had she been able to view the Raphael restoration of the 1970s  The restoration had occurred forty years after her own rendition  and it was decidedly brighter.  Which vision would suit the congregation ? After some discussion the members decided to pursue the path suggested by the later restoration.  I stressed that such a job would involve extensive overpainting, that we were embarking on something not usually part of the scope of art restoration.  Everyone understood and wanted to go ahead.

Those first days of work  I replaced the oatmeal color of the sky with the cobalt and ultramarine blues  I wondered how members of the church would react.  A change of this magnitude might be a shock.  As the weeks passed and more people stopped by to view the project, I received more and more encouragement.  The art restoration at First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville  proved to be one of the most rewarding I have ever had.  While trying to achieve a semblance of Raphael's palette I was always aware of the energetic paintstrokes and a sense of rhythm that were unique to Ada Quarles.  The restoration became a conversation across the centuries with those two artists.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

When Art Restoration is a Community Matter

When Art Restoration is a Community Matter

Transfiguration by Ada Quarles, after Raphael
(after restoration)

 I never met Ada Quarles, but after restoring the mural she created more than 80 years ago for the First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, I almost feel  I know her.   Fearless and expressive.  That’s how I imagine her.  Not only did she execute a copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration, making it larger than the original, she painted it at her home which is no mean feat when the measurements are 12 feet wide by 14 feet tall. (There are two conflicting stories of the location.  One person remembered her cutting a slot into her kitchen floor to make room for the canvas.  Others report that she worked in an out-building). Upon completion of the work, she presented it  to the church.
  I was asked to look the mural as part of a major renovation of the church’s sanctuary, a project overseen by architect William Owens.  During my preliminary examination I noticed some water damage, but the most noticeable issue was the dinginess of the colors.  It was not simply the intervening years that had brought about the dulling of the colors, but  a fire in the nineteen-fifties left a layer of soot that I now saw on the heel of my hand after I touched the surface.  Also, I came away with a suspicion that the mural had never been varnished. Without this protective coating, my efforts at cleaning would be severely limited.
 When I started cleaning, with a variety of solvents and gentle abrasives, I could see that my suspicions had been correct: there was no varnish.  Consequently, there was little I could do beyond the superficial to brighten the pervasive gravy-like colors.   Even inpainting (touching up) the water- damaged areas did little to improve it.  At this point it was agreed that I should stop work to  give the Trustees of the First United Methodist Church, together with the mural committee, time to consider what the mural meant to the community and how far they wanted restoration to go.   Goals needed to be defined.  Was our object the removal of flaws or the transformation of Mrs. Quarles’s original vision  ?   This project caused me to see the scope of restoration in entirely new ways as we considered the wishes of  a church community.  In my next blog entry, I’ll describe what happened next; how I got from before to after.
Transfiguration by Ada Quarles, after Raphael
(Before Restoration)