Thursday, November 29, 2018

Witnessing the Crucifixion While Restoring the Corpus...... From the Diary of The Saint Painter

Over a year ago I was asked to restore the statues for the new church being built to replace the childhood church of my youth. I was thrilled for the chance to work on statues of this magnitude. They were extremely old and damaged but beautifully designed Italian statues, taller then me. The idea of transforming them to their original splendor was something I was eager to do but I didn't know that in peeling off their damaged layers I would be transforming myself, as well.

I was going to be working on at least four statues large enough to look me in the eye.  I needed to get them settled and get to work. They arrived one by one in the back of my SUV.  I carefully evaluated each and made a plan. St. Anne with Child Mary had taken at least one header sometime in their 90 plus years and both needed a nose job and lip reconstruction. Child Mary, like many kids had bumped her chin leaving a gash big enough to warrant a trip to the ER.  The many layers of chipped and flaking paint would have to be painstakingly dissolved before I could even consider repairs or new paint. 70 year old St. Anthony had some missing fingers and a poorly healed broken wrist. The Child he held had large decomposed areas, water-damage and poorly matched but well intended touch up paint that resembled roofing tar. It all had to be removed while salvaging as much of the original finish as possible. The 88 year old St. Therese statue still had her beautiful face but chips and discoloration left her with an unpleasant complexion. She was starting to show her age. The broken edges, peeling paint and sporadic gold leaf on her robe told me her outfit needed updating. The statue I avoided was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He came to me having been repainted in an unusual pearlized color and I knew Father Bill wanted traditional colors. It was apparent that Jesus had taken a few tumbles using his arms to break his fall. Instead the falls had broken his arms. Some brave soul had made difficult major repairs to reattach his out-reaching arms. Now the repairs needed repairs. With broken fingers, wobbly arms, plastic peeling paint and a heart that needed mending, I wasn't ready to think about the monumental task of resurrecting the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. Off he went to the back corner and patiently watched over us.

"Oh, did I mention that our two large Corpus statues need to be painted? One is for the crucifix behind the main altar. The other is for the crucifix in the small chapel. I would like them to be painted realistically, instead of the current wood finish. They need to be done first."  No, actually, Father Bill, that wasn't mentioned but what the hell...might as well be trial by fire right from the start, I thought as I smiled back, nodding. I didn't bother to tell him I had never painted a Corpus statue realistically, not because I am not skilled enough as an artist but because I am not skilled enough spiritually to face Christ's agony. I didn't even like saying the word Corpus out loud. I have purposely avoided the discomfort. I shook my head as I heard my mother's voice "You get the lesson you most need when you need it most."  So, I loaded the two of them into the back of my SUV for a road trip to their new accommodations.  Surprisingly, no one called shotgun. 

I started with what I had been trained to do... preparing the ground, repairing the broken parts, re-sculpting the missing pieces. I mixed hide glue with gypsum to create gesso that was close to what had been used 90 years before. It fills the imperfections and prepares the piece to accept the painted finish. I used natural bristle brushes like those traditionally used. Gradually, the two Corpus statues transformed into a smooth paint-ready surface. As each layer dried, I mixed 10 colors of flesh tone, 6 colors of blue for the robe and 4 colors of cream for highlighting and more colors for the beard and hair. I waited for drying time then viewed each under a variety of light. I labeled, remixed again and again until I was satisfied I had exactly the right colors. My next challenge was to put life into the Corpus statues or in this case, life and death. 

I held the statue of the body of Christ in my lap falling into a trance as I carefully painted the flesh tone around the five wounds associated with the Crucifixion. I could feel the pain they must have caused. In the process of glazing and layering shadows and highlights on arms and legs, torsos, cheeks and chins, the face and body transformed as my skills as an artist were surpassed by my emotions. I began to see in a different way. I was overwhelmed by the thought of being nailed to a cross as if an animal. Tiny cracks in my heart opened with each brush stroke as I painted the details of the eyes and the mouth.  I envisioned how excruciating the torture must have felt and what it took to endure it.  I felt the wind and heard the murmur of a crowd. How quickly would Christ's tears evaporate and the blood from the Crown of Thorns dry in the breeze?  I felt a chill as the clouds passed in front of the sun. I had let go of  protecting myself from the "reality" of  the Crucifixion.  It had always been easier to deny living in a world where someone, not just Christ, but anyone could be crucified for what they believed. Exhausted by the painting, I had to step away frequently.  Each time I returned as an artist but now I was an artist who was seeing through her heart.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Patron Saint of Uncondidtional Love, St. Anne. ....Part 2 "How to Faux Finish a Cat"

Note: This is Part 2.  Please read the previous post "The Patron Saint of Unconditional Love, St. Anne"

Part 2  "How to Faux Finish a Cat"

My mother was in her 80s, living by herself on our family farm, selling bales of hay out of her barn ten miles from town.  She loved the land more than anything and even though my father had been gone for more than 10 years she missed him every day.  The ranch remained a powerful connection to him and the life they had shared.

She was helping an elderly couple who lived in town, visiting with freshly cooked meals and groceries, paying and mailing their bills. One particularly rainy night, she was getting ready to drive the 10 miles home when she heard a pitiful meow.  A tiny starving, rain-soaked kitty pleaded with her.  Not one to disappoint, my mother couldn't say no to an animal in need. She named this beautiful dark tiger striped cat "Teeny".  Teeny had won the lottery for homeless cats as my mother nursed her back to health, their bond flourishing and deepening like nothing I had seen before. Teeny was with her every minute, walking miles on trails together as my mother hunted mushrooms, picked wildflowers or blackberries depending on the season.

On a chilly winter day in late November, a nice man left my mother's with his horse trailer full of hay and Teeny was nowhere to be found.  My mother called him to see if Teeny had gone home with him accidentally.  No, he hadn't seen her cat.  My mother continued to hunt and call for several days around her property until the nice man called telling her Teeny had been locked in the trailer and darted out when he opened it.  Relieved, my mother immediately went to their house to get her cat.  Teeny was too scared in an unfamiliar place to come to my mother.  For over two weeks, two or three times every day, my mother would drive to their house and call for her beloved kitty.  The kitty was simply not to be found.

St Anne statue fully restored by Chris Hart Studio
It was December 18th, my mother's 87th birthday and I was planning to take her out to dinner to celebrate. It was dark early as I worked faux finishing a custom ordered kitchen island in time for a Christmas gift.  I could hear the rain chattering on the metal roof of my studio when the phone rang.  It was the nice man, saying he had found my mother's cat. Happy to hear the good news, I said I would come to his house and pick her kitty up.  He hesitantly told me the cat was dead then slowly, he added that his dog had killed her cat.

I hoped to put an end to the unpleasantness of the situation and called my mother to let her know her kitty was found dead and that was that.  She was insistent that she get her cat back, dead or alive.  She wanted Teeny to be buried on her property, not somewhere strange.  I called the nice man back and told him I had to pick up the cat right now.  He hesitated and said "I already buried the cat".  I kindly told him I would bring a box and a plastic bag but to please dig up my mother's cat.  Then he told me "I had to shoot the cat to put it out of its misery".  Thoughts raced through my head as I remembered my mother's refusal to abandon her search for Teeny.  I marveled at the size of her heart and her ability to love all living things unconditionally, including me. I knew if I didn't pick up the cat, my mother would. 

It was wet and cold as I stood in the dark with Teeny in a cardboard box. I could not give this cat to my mother, bloodied and covered in mud.  I couldn't bare the pain my mother would feel every time she envisioned Teeny's last moments. I am my mother's daughter. I'm an artist who specializes in faux finishes and restoration. I am, if nothing else, extremely creative.   

I took Teeny back to my studio, shampooed her beautiful dark tiger coat then blew it dry so it was silky and fluffy like it always was.  I wiped the dirt from her eyes, ears and nose with a Q-tip.  I touched up the bite mark on her neck, minimizing the visual disruption. Then I dealt with the bullet hole in the back of her skull.  I filled and cleaned and repainted the flesh tone, fluffing the fur over the top of it. I couldn't bring her back to life but I could make her just as beautiful as she had been in real life, the precious companion my mother had loved and would always remember.

My mother happily holding her baby, Chris
When I carried Teeny into her kitchen, my mother had prepared a box with her favorite jingling ball toy.We had spent hours laughing as Teeny never lost interest in chasing it.  My mother painstakingly inspected every inch of Teeny before wrapping her in a sweater that smelled of her lavender soap.  She hesitated at the neck and then again at Teeny's skull.  She turned slowly and looked at me. Our eyes exchanged one flicker of understanding.  We both needed to protect each other.  We knew the meaning of unconditional love and it had come full circle. Very quietly my mother closed the box and we went into the dark to bury Teeny together.

I will never forget my mother's 87th birthday and the gift I was able to give back to her.  Thank you, St. Anne.              



Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Patron Saint of Unconditional Love, St. Anne

Close up of  the St. Anne statue being restored
at Chris Hart Studio
I was one of those children that did not look forward to kindergarten. Actually, I hated it. I disliked the first day, the second day and all the days that followed. I simply didn't understand why I needed to leave the quiet bliss of the outdoors and sit in a stuffy classroom. I much preferred going barefoot in warm powdery dust to wearing shoes on a waxed linoleum floor. I would rather pick wildflowers while exploring a creek bed that read a book about picking wildflowers while exploring a creek bed. I was easily brought to tears by Sister Martha's strict humorless teaching style. There was not one thing about going to school I liked.

My mother would cheerfully drive me every morning as I begged her to let me stay home.  She would patiently walk me to the door promising to pick me up in the afternoon.  I was determined to never let her forget the anxiety and misery I felt.  Finally, one especially exasperating morning she walked me into the church on our way to class. It was empty and dim with that familiar smell only a  Catholic church seems to have.  She stood in front of a St. Anne statue and told me the story of St. Anne, explaining that she was Mary's mother and Jesus' Gramma. 

This particular statue was about 5 feet tall and depicts St. Anne teaching her young daughter, Mary to read.  My mother told me that Mary was born late in St. Anne's life just like I had been and St. Anne felt her daughter was a blessing, not an inconvenience just like my mother felt about me. She said St. Anne valued education over stuff just like she did. She explained that St. Anne wanted only the best for her daughter just like my own mother wanted for me. I looked at the statue for a long time.  It had beautiful deep rich colors with shining Gold leaf accents. I was mesmerized by the faces and how their eyes reflected the same deep love I saw in my mother's eyes every time she looked at me.  In that moment, I realized how much my mother loved me.   

St. Anne statue in the early stage of restoration
This Mothers Day, almost 60 years later, I began the task of restoring a very old damaged St. Anne statue for a nearby Catholic church. It seemed like a good day to work in my studio since my mother has been gone almost 4 years and I still feel sad on this day. Even now I find new ways to miss her, remembering things I forgot to ask and forgetting she isn't here to call.  I held part of the statue in my lap and I patiently dissolved layer after layer of old paint, touched up by many well-intentioned people over the years.  As I carefully removed the different colors, parts of the original finish began to show through. As damaged as it was, I recognized something as a wash of tears came over me. I was working on the same statue my mother had introduced me to years ago. How masterfully my mother had used the story of another mother, St. Anne, to help me understand what is most important. Just like the layers of paint I was removing, she had peeled away the layers of excuses, showing me the meaning of unconditional love.