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It's the Perfect Frame Job

Date: Sept. 23, 2002
Story by: Mary Bridget Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Archive: General News
Photos by: Kristin Schade and Leigh Waltz

Cincinnati - Cinderella is back to wearing her glass slipper.

That's how students and staff at the University of Cincinnati view their painstaking work in restoring historic gems of art to their original settings.

Anne Timpano, director of galleries at UC's College of Design Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) is leading university graduate students in an effort to restore 19th-century and turn-of-the-century paintings by internationally and regionally known artists to their original baroque frames.

Anne Timpano and student Catherine Elkin varnish frame

"Some time in the past, the paintings were taken out of their original frames. These often large-scale paintings were placed in modern frames that were too small in scale for the work. The paintings took on a claustrophobic feel, a pinched look. They were wearing corsets, if you will, and couldn't breathe. They were stuck tight," Timpano explained.

The paintings and frames that Timpano and her students are reuniting are part of UC's 4,000 strong art collection. That collection includes influential artists like French impressionist Edgar Degas, Renaissance artist Albrecht Altdorfer, and internationally prominent artists - like Elizabeth Nourse and Frank Duveneck - who led Cincinnati's Golden Age, so called because of the number of artists of national and international reputation who worked in the city from 1830-1900.

Typically, UC's fine arts collection is on display throughout campus, or works are on loan to museums if not in storage. And the storage space is where, years back, Timpano saw piles of frames.

And she knew their importance. After all, American artists of the 19th-century or of the turn-of-the-century were very likely to be concerned about frame design. These artists routinely contracted for a specific frame to highlight a particular painting. Thus, frame restoration is a way to better reflect an artist's vision in regard to a specific work.

Anne Timpano applying wet plaster

"I found the frames in a stack, and we began matching them to the historic paintings they'd once sheltered. It's important to do for a complete artifact. It's like any antique, the more original, the better," she added.

There was one problem. All of the frames require substantial restoration: Wood was damaged, the original paint or varnish patchy, and plaster accents chipped or missing segments. So, Timpano and her students began to exercise resourcefulness and creativity to restore the old frames to perfection. Their tools come from both the typical tool bench and medicine chest as they experiment in mixing paints to achieve just the same hue as the original pigment. Caulk guns appear to adhere separated frame joints. Dental picks and cuticle pushers are employed to mold and shape the wet plaster before it can dry.

Anne Timpano carving plaster

"We bring in the tools we have at home. We say, 'You bring in a dental pick, I'll bring in the cuticle pusher,'" explained DAAP Master of Fine Arts graduate Liliana Duque-Piņiero, 29, now a theater design major in UC's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) and a Fulbright Scholar from Colombia. Though the group seems willing to nonchalantly turn just about anything into a tool for their frame jobs, the students are more than seriously nervous about the care they take in this work.

"I was really worried when we first started working on the frames. Art restoration is rather like being a doctor. The first rule is 'do no harm.' It's intimidating," said recent UC Master of Fine Art graduate Leigh Waltz, 42, of Over-the-Rhine. He added that with all the care involved, each project takes weeks.

Right now, Timpano, Duque-Piņiero and Kristin Schade, a graduate student in UC's School of Design, are restoring the original frame to a Jonas Lie painting, a snowy scene titled "Winter Landscape With Brook." The frame displays plaster ornamentation at each corner. But unfortunately, each of these corners is damaged. Duque-Piņiero described the process: "It's 'to your corner' for each of us. So, we all take a station at each corner. We apply some plaster to remake a missing or damaged part. We carve it out as the plaster is hardening using a dental pick and a cuticle pusher...Before applying the plaster, we did many tests to get the right proportions of plaster of paris, Elmer's glue, and water."

Duque-Piniero carving plaster

The project demands heavy doses of delicacy and, occasionally, speed. But sometimes, it's no more than heavy lifting. For instace, the now-restored frame for impressionist Henry Louis Meakin's "Sunset" weighs about 60 pounds. The now-restored frame for Emil Carlsen's 1884 "Mancour" weighs about 30 pounds.

"Working with them was like lifting a boat from the sand," explained Waltz. For instance, the original frame for the Meakin painting had joints which no longer joined. So, the students and Timpano used a caulk gun to insert a silicon/caulk compound into the frame joints. The caulk will last about 20 years because it allows the wood to expand and contract with temperature changes. Remembered Waltz, "It took at least two people to lift the frame and a third to work that caulk gun."

So far, the DAAP group has restored two large-scale paintings to their original frames. They're now working on their third project. Timpano says many more paintings and frames will eventually be restored to one another.

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