Artist lovingly reconstructs mural at Holy Trinity Church Six-week project will restore Venetian-style 1936 painting

November 24, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

High on a scaffold, clutching rags and a brush, Gray Robert Stephens digs through layers of paint searching for the faces of angels.

He works slowly, edging away the hardened facade of a religious mural at Glen Burnie's Holy Trinity Catholic Church until the original cherubs of a Venetian-style painting emerge.

"I've worked a lot of places, but not many have paintings as dramatic as this," says Mr. Stephens, 37, who was the artist foreman at the Willard Hotel and Union Station restorations in Washington. "This is a delightful piece. You don't often find this quality."

A third-generation portrait painter, Mr. Stephens is also a conservationist and reconstructionist artist. That means he restores aged art, repainting to match the brush strokes and color of original works.

This painting, which depicts the Trinity surrounded by 27 angels, had been repainted so often it had calcified, Mr. Stephens says. The elegant mural was created by an unidentified Italian artist when the church opened in 1936, but had since been covered in flat whites, blues and grays -- unlike the original reddish-golden hues.

To make it worse, the work of art had been spray painted.

Says Bill Binder, manager of the 2,662-member parish: "You could see little specks of spray paint all over the figures of God and the angels."

The restoration of the painting is the last step in a major overhaul of the church, Mr. Binder says. The $450,000 project included restoring the sanctuary to its original splendor, he said, under the direction of the church pastor, the Rev. Martin Hammond, and his associate, the Rev. Gerald Bowen.

From photographs of 1930s weddings, church officials discovered that the interior had been drastically altered. They matched the original style with dark beams and wainscoting and replaced white plastic windows with replicas of the original stained glass.

"I think the impact on parishioners has been extremely positive," says Mr. Binder. "It restores history."

For his task in the restoration, Mr. Stephens first cut several "windows" in the sky to find the original colors. He repainted the faces of angels, which were distorted and hardened, to look fresh and sweet.

The artist points out his favorite angel, painted to resemble his 2-year-old son, Nathaniel. Another special angel bears the face of a parishioner's small son, who died in an accident.

"In a way, this makes them immortal," Mr. Stephens says.

The artist -- who looks the part with a blond beard and black turtleneck sweater -- has always known what his life work would be. "This has been my love forever," he says.

Now in his 15th year of restoration work, the Glen Burnie native became a merchant seaman and studied for 20 years under a master portrait painter in Europe. Now he travels the East Coast practicing his art.

"A lot of people envision Michelangelo on his back, but he didn't really work that way," says Mr. Stephens, who stands or sits on the scaffolding, far above the sanctuary floor. "It's not practical, and you would fall asleep."

The entire Holy Trinity project will take about six weeks, he calculates. "When I came into it, the painting was horribly over-sprayed," says Mr. Stephens. "It was so much over-painted that the figures were unrecognizable, distorted."

To remove the layers, Mr. Stephens used hot solvents and acids. He then began repainting, using a semi-fresco technique of oil paint on plaster.

The colors he uses are reversible, the artist says, meaning that they can be removed if another generation wants to change the painting. Called conservation colors, the pigments are exceptionally pure, and the paint will not yellow.

As he retouches an angel's forehead with white paint, Mr. Stephens talks about his dream of establishing a trade school for the arts.

"A retired artist, Eugene Kamelak, took me under his wing, and it made such an impression on me, I'd like to do that with others," he says.

In the meantime, making a go of a competitive business means Mr. Stephens must travel frequently.

"It's almost a closed market," he says. "You have to know somebody or be part of a guild."

But Mr. Stephens thinks he has an edge, since he's both a conservationist and an artist. "Most people are one or the other," he says quietly. "Most conservationists are not very artistic. They can do the mechanical work but they don't have the innate talent to match the original artist's techniques. I've married the two."

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