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Entries in plaster repair (1)

Sunday
Oct302011

Painting the Saints

 

It's been a long hiatus from my blog.  I've been working for the past month in (very) Eastern Washington in Holy Rosary Church in the town of Pomeroy, Washington (1000 plus people), patching and painting the statues of the saints, the stations of the cross, and faux marbeling the pillars on the altar.  The town of Pomeroy is where I grew up, and the church bell in Holy Rosary Church was bought and shipped from "back East" by my great grandparents. 

Pomeroy is surrounded by high rolling hills that are planted mostly with wheat.  The top soil there is in some places, almost 100 feet deep, and was deposited by giant sand storms millions of years ago.  A surreal quiet beauty I didn't appreciate until I left it.  This is how the hills look in the spring.

This is how it looks in the fall.

I always like to start with the land.  It is the strongest connection I have to any place I have traveled.  If I can't get out of the city or off a bus or stop the car and walk across a field, wade through a creek, or pick up stones on a beach, I feel like I have missed the spirit of a place.

My home town of Pomeroy is in one of the valleys Lewis and Clark traveled, and there is a little creek that runs through the center of town called the Pataha Creek.  When I was a child, my Dad worked with the Wild Life and Game Commission to stock the creek with rainbow trout and limit the fishermen within the city limits to kids under 14. (There always seemed to be a lot of Dads "helping" their kids on the day fishing season opened.)

I spent all summer sloshing up and down this creek , fishing and dreaming under a canopy of willows and dappled summer sunlight.  I saw muskrats, rats, water beetles, water striders, minnows tad poles, frogs, crawdads, humming bird nests, blue herons, and caught my share of trout. The creek was too brushy for casting, so I used grasshoppers or worms I'd catch for bait. Sometimes I would even hook a pretty little native rainbow, but usually I let it go.  They never got very big.

I was baptized and confirmed in Holy Rosary Church, sang gregorian chant at Mass every day there for the first 8 years of my education, and now I am a very retired Catholic. However, my life has been shaped by my community, my religious training and family, and I was honored to be offered the opportunity to do some repair and restoration for the church. The church committee was very organized and gave me a notebook book full of possible projects.

The church will be repainted in the colors of wheat and grass and blue sky.  My designer friend Betsy Stalker and I came up with the concept, and the Altar Society and Father Robert Turner approved it with some additions of their own.  The livid blue, included the blue and stenciled gold pattern on the main altar and the carpet will go. (Whew!) 

I noticed this sign in the sacristy.  Made me laugh.  No gum for the altar boys/girls.

My first project was to add more green in the main altar faux marble pillars.  I had done the faux marble finish on the pillars in a lighter shade fifteen years ago, but the committee wanted me to bring out more of the green. I winced a bit when I looked at what I did before. I'm a better painter now.

 

While I worked on the pillars, the committee…Mary, Donna, Carol and Dwyla…cleaned the statues of the saints.  St. Joseph, Mary, The Sacred Heart and St. Teresa of Liseux were shampooed and rinsed. There were lots of nicks and damage.  The Sacred Heart had a badly mangled hand, and all the saints with the exception of St. Teresa had damage to the folds in their robes.

Mary worked on the Sacred Heart after removing his arms and Dwyla, Carol and Donna worked on the Virgin Mary. They used a specialized cleaning product from a conservator site, and worked from bottom to top so there wouldn't be streaks. I patched the saints with a dental stone plaster, sanded them and matched their colors with casein (reversible).  Under St. Joseph we found several touching requests scribbled on scraps of paper.  "Pray for me, I have cancer" , "Please give my son a job", or "Please find me a job"  Sad signs of the times.

My next job was to work on the Stations of the Cross, fourteen of them, which had been cleaned and were waiting for me in the old Catholic school…in the same room where I attended 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classes taught by the Holy Names Sisters.

I had never really looked at the Stations, since they were so high up on the wall and we really never did much with them except on Good Fridays, which seemed intermidably long and gloomy when I was a child.  After looking at them closely, I am pretty sure that someone painted the backgrounds a dark grey with some sort of folk art acrylics sometime in the 70's or 80's. 

 

The figures themselves don't seem to have been touched since the original paint.  I would hazard a guess that they were painted with oils, since they dated at least since the early 4o's.  They almost looked airbrushed in many places and are exquisite with delicate details like tiny eyelashes, tears and very thin lines of red along the lower eye lid.  I followed the advice of my friend Lynne Rutter www.ornamentalist.net and had my crew paint a layer of BIN (tinted white shellac) over the background just in case. (Shellac is a barrier and can be reversed) I had it tinted a pale grey blue, since it would be a good base for a simple sky background.

I mixed a combination of raw umber, burnt umber, a little yellow ochre and titanium white casein to touch up the damaged sides of the Stations and their finials, and it really worked well.  My crew of Mary, Carol, Donna and Dwyla did a fantastic job.

 When they finished with the base coats and the touch ups, I blessed them all roundly and told them their work was done.  Then I got busy with building up oil paint glazes over the BIN background  for the "skies".  Mary suggested that I start with a lighter blue and ochre and madder sky and work up to a green and plum and ochre sky as the Christ figure approaches his death on the Cross and internment in the tomb.  I tried out some clouds, but thought it too fussy, and the committee and Father agreed.  Keep it simple.

I turned on my new Ipod touch with my downloaded library audio books and painted away.  What did I listen to?  Moll Flanders, some novellas by Jim Harris, and Sons and Lovers. The spiritual and the corporeal.

 

My next job was trying to help the Dayton Parish Mary and St. Joseph. They were badly damaged.  The hands of the Virgin were NAILED in through her sleeves and wiggled ominously.  When I moved them, her right hand slid out, fortunately, into my hand.  The wrist section that fit into the broken sleeve had crumbled into pieces around the wire armature, and both sleeves were already fractured and broken. Baby Jesus was missing a whole shoulder and part of his back. Joseph's face was falling off.  On both statues, the paint was cracking and falling off in sections. 

I suspect that about 80 years ago, a painter had applied oil paint on a surface that had not been properly prepped or dried long enough. No doubt a client was demanding, like Pope Julius ll with Michelangelo, to hurry up and finish the job!

 

I ruminated, patched and sanded and painted, and did my best.  I am not a conservator, but I have been careful to use reversible techniques and materials, so in the next thousand years a restorer will not say something sniffy about the stupid amateur who worked on these poor saints.

I fixed hands, noses for a few, shoulders for Jesus and tried to give St. Joseph's scarred forehead a luminous glow. I discovered that a tine on a plastic fork worked well for applying plaster, and I found that a bag of dental stone plaster kindly donated by Pomeroy's dentist, Dr. Smith, worked very well for repairs.  I tried to contact the same dentist a few days later for a little riffle file, but I think he had gone hunting!  So I did the best I could on the centurion's nose. I forgot to get a final photo of Mary and St. Joseph, but Donna is a technical wizard and is going to send me some photos from her Iphone.

It was complicated getting an Internet connection. I have a pay by minute cell that I rarely use unless I travel so no phone connections for me.  Usually I would go to Meyer's Hardware and Tommy or Kay would make me an excellent Americana and I would set up my laptop on a little table and tune in, visit with teachers and farmers and lawyers who came in for paint, widgets, etc. but stayed for coffee and conversation, and read my e-mail.

 

Oh yeah.  I also did a Pomeroy Elementary school residency with the esteemed Ms. Shari Curnett, art teacher, and the 6th grade and the 3rd grade classes.  Will have their finished work up soon.The 6th grade each did a tapestry on Roc-lon canvas donated by Darlene Saunders and the third grade did all the pets they could paint (one little boy told me he did a "distinct" dinosaur) and they tied them on yarn leashes and glued them to a big sheet of craft paper for the hall decoration.

And I did an all day watercolor and acrylic painting workshop in Lewiston, Idaho (30 miles over the Alpowa grade and across the Snake River). Verrry successful, I must say.

 

Then Mary took me over the back roads and the Snake River bluffs to her ranch in Peola where she houses three horses, 30 cats, a great many outbuildings, a studio in her dining room and a very handsome husband named Steve.

And every day I came home Megan, my dear sister, would have a beer ready. And dinner and tea and sympathy even though she had back surgery.  And her partner Dave would walk me and their dog Rosie in the morning. And Eileen, my other dear sister and wonderman and husband, John, would ply me with good whisky, give me rides, and feed me good food. And find stuff I left in places.

And at night, me and Rosie and Megan and Dave and I would relax, and I would draw and watch Dancing with the Stars and call foul because loathsome Nancy Grace and charming but awkward Carson were still in the contest.

 

That's it.  I am back in Seattle and Lying Low.