To preserve history through art is important, but what happens when the artwork is damaged by fire or water?
No one expects to lose valuable art to these elements, and a major step in preserving the pieces is to get immediate help to prevent any further damage from smoke, mold and toxins.
Most art restoration experts, including Ruth Graham, advise taking damaged pieces to a professional soon after the damage occurs.
“I have owned and operated a custom picture framing business and have been cleaning and restoring art for the past 48 years, the last 40 of those years in Salem,” says Graham, who grew up in Southern California.
She was raised in an artistic family and began experimenting with oil paints on canvas at a very early age. After studying at Los Angeles Art Center, she opened her framing business in 1971 in Long Beach, Calif.
“Shortly after opening, a former art professor engaged my help in the cleaning of a large art collection consisting primarily of oil paintings,” she says. “Under his expert tutelage I learned a great deal about the art of cleaning and restoring oil and acrylic paintings. Through the years I have worked with water and fire mitigation companies and countless individual clients cleaning and refurbishing all types of damaged and deteriorated works of art.”
Some of Graham’s most challenging jobs are paintings in which the canvas is cut or torn.
“If the tear is too large to be patched, the canvas must be relined with new canvas,” she says. “This is also necessary if the old original canvas is cracked, has rotted from neglect or the original substrata was improperly grounded.”
Graham finds pleasure in giving the painting a new life, returning it to the “grateful owner who cannot find where the repair was made,” she says. “Even difficult and tedious repairs are so worthwhile when the client is amazed and grateful for the saving of their valuable piece of art or family treasure.”
Graham’s business remains primarily custom picture framing of art on paper, canvas or wood panel and includes shadowbox object framing, needlework and textile art.
“We always use archival materials and conservation methods,” she says of what she believes is the best advice she can give to anyone who owns works of art on paper. “Use archival materials to back and mat the art and use conservation glass which is 99 percent UV filtering. All types of art should be hung or stored in an area that doesn’t have wide fluctuations in temperature or humidity.”
Graham also advises varnishing oils after they are completely dry to protect them from oxidation of the paint pigments.
“And a surface that is protected and can be easily cleaned,” she says.
Most experts agree that soot and smoke damage to photographs, paintings, statues, and other types of art can cause a lot of work. Most requires experience and professional-grade tools to fully clean and restore contents to their original quality.
Salem resident Mark Falby lost his works to a devastating house fire, including paintings, sculptures, etchings, serigraphs, watercolors, pottery, art glass and photography. He also lost a cherished oil painting of the church that his father pastored and his own paintings.
“It was the most painful thing about losing my house,” says Falby, who earned a bachelor’s in painting from the University of Oregon and a master’s in fine arts education from Western Oregon University. He taught art to handicap learners for four years in the Salem-Keizer School District before becoming a graphic designer for the state.
“Although the fire burned so hot it melted glass and metal into nothing, there were closets that I had packed all my artwork in,” he says. “They were stored so tightly together that some images survived but are water-damaged and all the frames are ruined.”
Falby says he plans to restore those pieces.
“I have an oil painting which survived and will most likely have it restored by a professional,” he says. “I don’t have the tools or expertise they have. They will know the best way in which to clean a piece that has gone through extreme heat and then water damage.”
Falby tells of a friend whose mother passed away, leaving a collection of paintings that were stored in an out-building.
“My friend went through them and mice and birds had defecated on them,” Falby says. “He found it so repulsive that he threw all of her artwork away. It’s so important to store your artwork in a safe environment.”
Much of Falby’s artwork was from personal friends, some of whom have died. Losing their art was like losing the friends again, he says.
“The images were one of a kind,” he says. “Treat your artworks as you would a family member. You can’t replace them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”
Falby believes original art, especially those of the masters, elicits emotions that are quite different from looking at the image on prints or postcards.
“If you own an original, cherish it,” he says. “The person who made it cared enough to create it.”
Both Graham and Falby recommend storing items in a dry, safe environment.
“If you have artwork that has been matted on unarchived matting or a cardboard backing, redo it,” he says. “The acid will discolor the piece and eat it away. If you are creating artwork, do the same thing. Make sure you use media suited to the task that will stand the test of time.
“Above all enjoy your artwork,” he says. “It is the ‘child’ of the artist.”