The art that isn't there

October 07, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

The workshop is a small room with a bay window and scuffed hardwood floors.

In its center is a table strewn with old newspapers. A large mirror, set inside an ornate golden frame, sits upon one side. Assorted uncapped aerosol cans and other supplies stand beside the piece.

On balance, the cramped work space looks like the household closet stuffed with all manner of items filed as out of sight, out of mind.

But this is where restorer Gregory Sullivan takes sentimental retreads and provides a glorious renaissance to the delight of generations to come.


Trick is, his is a thankless job. If Sullivan and his peers do their jobs right, odds are no one will ever know what they did to refurbish antiques, artwork and ancient treasures.

"That is probably, in essence, what we try to do, restore to a point suitable, safe and preserved, and look closest to what the creator who created it had in mind," Sullivan says. "That's a winner, and of course nobody ever realizes it either. But that's when it's most successful. It's kind of neat."

For art restorers, the prize is in floating under the radar to bring blemished works back to dazzling life.

And what qualifies as art is more than a nicotine-stained canvas. Its frame may require some TLC, too. So does the mirror in Sullivan's work area.

Vintage wallpaper may seem obsolete but sometimes needs a little facelift, as does antique furniture.

"Even though something looks hopeless to the untrained eye, and the average person sees something all torn, wrinkled and brown, they shouldn't assume there is nothing that can be done with it," says Shepherdstown, W.Va., paper conservator Susan Nash. "There is quite a lot that can be done with it."

The puzzler is what should be done, and when. Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Director Jean Woods says scientific advancements have revolutionized the world of restoration.

The downside is that what makes sense in restoration circles today may be derided as barbaric by tomorrow's standards.

"There used to be an almost invasive approach to restoration, which is today totally unused," Woods says. "It's like surgery. What they did in the '60s has been revolutionized in today's world."

In a bygone era, she says, furniture rehab would attempt to produce a highly polished shine on pieces. Today, untouched original condition is what sells.

So treating every material as if it were cracked porcelain, the restorer painstakingly works to rehabilitate pieces stained after years of exposure to nicotine or the elements, coming across all manner of home remedies.

Sullivan's own experience has exposed well-intentioned quick fixes ranging from medical tape to duct tape to gold radiator paint.

A homeowner's heart may be in the right place, even if the result is a trickier facelift for the professional.

"It looked good for a year," Sullivan says of the radiator paint used to touch up some golden frames. "And then it tarnished into the most horrible gold brown color you've ever seen."

Sullivan, also owner of Hudson House Galleries in Funkstown, often works until 2 or 3 a.m., or gets an early start to the day at 5:30 a.m. before heading across Baltimore Street to his shop at 9 a.m. Still, he has a backlog of three to six months, even with bringing in outside help as projects warrant.

"If a piece is worth $10,000 or if the piece is worth $1,000, the same time, effort and materials need to be used to repair it," he says. "The customer needs to decide if it's worthwhile to them."

When Nash meets with a client, her first question is what they want to see done to the wallpaper or other parchment she will rehabilitate.

There is a big difference between stabilizing paper, making it look better and making it look good enough to frame, and it's a tough negotiation for any conservator.

Unlike Sullivan, however, Nash doesn't have to worry about techniques that change in time. Following time-tested Japanese methods of conservation, she does not make any change to a piece that can not later be reversed.

"You're never the last person to fix something, never," she says. "Somebody is going to come along in 50 or 100 years to fix it again, and if you use something that is, like Elmer's glue, that is insoluble, you've ruined it."

Just as techniques have changed, damages encountered by restorers shift from era to era. Nicotine may have been a scourge for a time, but now Sullivan wonders what he will encounter next.

This is why a new, more expansive workshop under construction features a state-of-the-art air filtration system.

"We're dealing with a time in history (now) where we don't know about what the suns rays are doing, we don't know about ozone, we don't know what is swirling around in the air. And we don't know what it's going to do," he says.

For Nash, just the passage of time can wreak havoc on paper, particularly low-grade specimens with a high acid content that increases naturally as it ages.

Another foe? Sunlight, and not just because exposure to its bright glare can fade papers.

"You know how a laser beam cuts things? Kind of, in a sense, that's what light does," Nash says. "It's like leaving a newspaper in sunshine for two or three hours. You can see it start to turn brown already."

With the breadth of restoration challenges, Woods says specialization in the field is amazing.

There are some, for instance, who dedicate their career to taking a bleached piece of furniture and restoring its rich mahogany color.

And since dealing in antiques is big business, the outcome of a restoration can mean the difference between a financial boom or bust.

"We're talking thousands of dollars, sometimes a lot more depending on what the piece is," Woods says. "It's all very, very tricky, what's done and how well it's done. And that ultimately depends on whether the price goes up or down, whether it's a good restoration or a bad one."

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