Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The finished product!

After a final week of some intensive inpainting, we are proud to present the final result! More soon on the treatment and future plans...

Friday, August 7, 2009

This isn't Eldridge Street...thoughts on preservation

We had an interesting and illuminating visit from Jonathan Shore today, a previous Vice President of the Shul who spearheaded the fundraising and renovation project that was completed in November of 2007. Though Jonathan voiced deep concerns about going down the conservation/preservation road, he also expressed his support for the project and his hopes that the shul will continue to improve the building and the interior. One comment, though, stuck in my head as it is something I have heard before from people I've met in the shul - that "this isn't Eldridge Street." By this, people mean both that it isn't possible for Stanton to raise the kinds of funds that the Eldridge Street Shul raised for their renovation, and that this shul strongly feels that it does not want to become a "museum" to Jewish history, but wants to remain an active and alive Jewish community.

I want to address the fear here that "preservation" is synonymous with a museum - or, for that matter, that "museum" is synonymous with "dead"! From my point of view as a conservator, "preserving" this historic interior does not mean leaving it as an untouched time capsule, decaying before our very eyes. It means respecting the efforts, ideas and lives of those who created this space, and doing as much as we can to reveal their original handiwork, to reveal the space that they created in which to gather and pray, and to live in that space as they lived in it.

The notion of place is very strong in Judaism, isn't it? The physical place, the enclosure in which the divine dwells, the centerpiece of the community. Being at the shul always makes me think of how it must have felt being a newcomer to this country, finding your way, and how important it was to recreate the familiar structures and relationships, to produce the visual reminders of home. I was thrilled when Elissa showed me a painting from Mayer Kirshenblatt's book, on view now at the Jewish Museum, of his childhood shul in Apt, Poland - there they were, the mazelos (also see the lovely multimedia page at the Jewish Museum website). It must have been heartwarming for the shul's congregants to see them again in New York. When I spend a day or, more recently, a week straight looking closely at the painting of the B'sullah, I never fail to see the hand that gently drew in the strands of wheat, that painted in the soft focus of the trees on the horizon and the blue and white of the clouds in the sky. The delicacy of the painting and the subtlety of the transitions between colors is largely obscured now, but the skill and care with which these were painted is clearly evident with a closer look. I feel strongly that this care and this effort must be honored, and must not be thrown away simply because it has been damaged.

I grew up with the notion that Jews valued history, lived and breathed the past, not in a regressive or stagnant way but in a way that celebrated the beauty and the strength of those who came before us. We study what they wrote, what they did, discuss how it relates to our current lives, use it, learn from it. This has a lot to do with why I chose the conservation profession, but that's a different topic. Jonathan had a lovely idea of working with local schools to create interpretations of the mazelos and display these in the shul. It's a beautiful idea. I feel, though, that in order to learn from the experience, the students must also know the original mazelos and experience the original space, to know that someone before them took the care and time to create this beautiful cycle. The mazelos have meaning on so many levels, Jewish and non, and their importance to the original Stanton community cannot be understated; but it isn't only the subject matter that matters here. Why do people travel to Jerusalem when they could very well look at a photo of the Wall online - or go to see Michelangelo's David in Florence when there are dozens of copies, even ones you can put on your coffee table? There is clearly something about the physical place and physical presence of Art - whether it's considered "high" or "low", whatever you think about its aesthetics - that holds power and energy for people. The paintings at the Stanton Street Shul have that energy, and though it may be obscured under the layers of the years, it is important that it now be brought to light.

Some photos..

"Before treatment" image:
I am about a week behind with these photos, so if you go into the shul you will see we are much farther along - but I wanted to share a few images of the first big part of the work, which was consolidating the flaking paint and removing the large areas of bright green overpaint.

The paint layer - which is not just one paint layer, of course, but can consist of three or four or five different applications dating to different time periods - was detached, or delaminating, from the plaster wall in many places. The separation from the wall and the many losses did allow us to see that the plaster behind this painting is in good condition, which isn't true for many parts of the wall, as those of you who know the shul can attest!

Our first big task was to readhere the flaking paint areas to the wall. This was time consuming but very successful and our method is detailed in an earlier post. If you look at the wall today, you will still see a network of cracks, but the paint flakes are now all lying relatively flat against the wall.

Our second simultaneous task was to remove the bright green overpaint areas. This green paint represents what seems to be the most recent effort to cover the damaged areas. There have also been at least two layers of spackle applied over the damaged areas, which extend, in many cases, quite far outside the missing areas, covering lots of original surface. We have carefully removed as much of this as we can and have revealed large portions of the original painting, in good condition. Luckily the spackle cleaves easily from the paint layer and is soluble in water, though it takes a bit of work to remove all the traces from the irregular topography of the surface. We are not as lucky with the green paint, as it leaves a greenish residue which is difficult to remove without also affecting the original surface underneath, and tends to stay in the cracks and small depressions of the surface.

Here we are with the bright green removed and the paint flattened. The two areas of green on the right are areas where we are keeping the old fill material in the losses; we will just inpaint it to match the surrounding area.
Since this photo was taken, we have removed large areas of the dull brown overpaint that covers the lower half of the panel, and filled in most of the loss areas at the bottom with a tinted spackle that will cover only areas of loss, not original surface. We have also removed a large part of the overpaint from the scene itself and filled in the large and small losses there, which are now ready to be inpainted to match the surrounding colors. Please check back in a week or so for more photos!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Yes! We found more treasures today! 
Beth an I had a long but very rewarding day at our bright yellow scaffolding. Part of the restoration treatment is the removal of later applied paint layers and skim coats that go extensively over the original decoration scheme. This is done with a small surgical knife aka a scalpel. By scraping very carefully and using otivisors it is possible to remove the later applied paint- and plaster layers and uncover the original paint layer.

And we found out that indeed it is extensively over painted! 

The center piece, the hand with the wheat also known as the 'Virgo sign' was pretty much over painted for almost 50% while maybe 15% was an actual loss and therefore a filling.
Uncovering the original paint layer is highly addicting and Beth and I just couldn't stop. Mumbling along the removal to each other how addicted we were...

Anyway we found  a lot today and the treasures we found are highly appreciated and cherished and will be preserved for the next generation!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Whew what a day! Complete with torrential rainstorms and saturated humid interior air. Still, we made tons of progress. Beth and I worked on the scaffold, sitting on plastic crates, while good-natured Roos stood the entire day on a ladder working on the left marbled column.

We started by consolidating—or reattaching to the wall—areas of paint that had lifted and curled up from the wall. Some areas exhibit several layers of paint—applied over many years-- which makes for a very thick, brittle paint film. The wonderful and incredibly knowledgable Harriet Irgang consulted with Roos and Beth during this previous week, working with them to develop the best treatment method. First we wet the lifted paint through tissue paper, with ethanol:distilled water, 1:1. This is allows the paint to relax back into position. Next we apply the consolidant—which is called BEVA D8 and is aqueous, or in a water solution. The adhesive looks a lot like Elmer’s, which is because it is a dispersion of tiny molecules of BEVA in water—the same way milk is tiny gobules of milk fat in water.

So we apply the BEVA, which in most instances is diluted with water, and let it work its way down behind the cracks and flakes. For the really tough and heavy lifted paint fragments, we apply the BEVA undiluted directly on the back of the paint. After this, we apply some light pressure to press the paint back in place. Finally, we use a little heat where needed to smooth down the flakes.

As we have been examining the painting and beginning to work, we have found some really interesting details about the history of the painting. Part of understanding how to conserve a piece involves understanding its construction—for instance, what was painted and when—and what might be the original mazel and what is more modern. We have spent a lot of time looking, slowly testing solvents and reducing overpaint to create a map of what paint is where. This is like archaeology in a sense, where you slowly move down through historical layers. One thing we know for sure is that large areas of the mazel are painted over, and we are so excited that we are able to uncover more of this original design. We have also been reducing large areas of light green overpaint—which is a bright mint color—that was applied in discrete sections throughout the piece. This distinct layer was marbled with black paint where it occurs in the marbled columns.

We are really excited about how the work is going—and I am so looking forward to the shul’s congregation getting to see our progress at services this week. We hope people visiting the shul will pick up our postcard—and post on the blog here what their thoughts are!

We just want to thank several people who have helped and shared their time and wisdom to make this project move forward—including Harriet Irgang, Norman Weiss, and Katie Gordon.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

beginning of week 2

So, the conservation work of the mazel entered the second week. Today was a great day; work went well and we are making progress. Also the shul was less of a sauna and not that hot and humid as it was last week.... 
We are discovering new details every day and that's keeping the work exciting and interesting. Being a conservator is sometimes like treasure finding, it is always so fulfilling to find new details, paint layers, decoration schemes or even the right treatment procedure. Also treasure finding needs tact, skill and a lot of patience, good for us we have those skills too! A more detailed follow up will be given by Sarah shortly.