Artist of original fresco hears church's prayers

Holly Run: The man who painted a historic chapel's ceiling in the 1970s says he will do it all over again after lightning sparked a fire that destroyed his work.

July 19, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

In the days after lightning struck the historic Holly Run chapel in Linthicum, causing a fire that destroyed its hand-painted ceiling, church members prayed for the return of the long-haired, bearded Baltimore artist they call their "Michelangelo."

Last week, their prayers were answered.

After reading an article about the destruction of the ceiling in The Sun, artist Ronald Spencer - who painted the intricate ceiling more than 25 years ago - left a telephone message for the Rev. David Shank, pastor of Holly Run's parent parish, Linthicum Heights United Methodist Church. In it, he offered to paint a new ceiling.

Shank said he was stunned.

"I had just been in the chapel with some trustees talking about how great it would be if we could contact the original artist," Shank said. "When he called, I just went `wow.' I didn't even know if he was still in the area."

So it came to be that Spencer, 58, arrived at Holly Run on Friday morning with several paint brushes in hand, their tips still tinted egg-shell blue from his original work on the chapel.

Older, grayer and, according to him, slightly fuller than when he was hired for the project at age 31, Spencer stopped by Holly Run to assess the damage to his work. Lightning struck the chapel's roof July 7, setting it afire. Firefighters saved the core structure, but not the ceiling, which suffered so much water damage that it had to be torn down.

Although Spencer confessed to feeling "dumbfounded" when he saw the gaping hole in the ceiling, he appeared cheerful and industrious as he examined the wounds to his fresco.

"I won't be able to get in here to work until they put up a new ceiling," Spencer said. "Then, it's going to take a lot of preparation."

Now living in a Federal Hill home that also serves as his studio, Spencer said that since painting the fresco he has worked continuously as an artist, painting everything from city murals to the interior walls of homes. Most recently, he was commissioned to paint a deck of cards, with each piece having tiny, elaborate patterns. Spencer said he has stopped by the chapel at least twice a year to stare up at his ceiling - a work he considers his masterpiece.

Spencer was selected from among several local artists to paint the chapel. It was a tall task, considering the historical significance of Holly Run.

Founded in 1828, Holly Run was the first chapel built by the Methodist Protestant Church of America, a splinter group that broke with the Patapsco Methodist Episcopal Church of Maryland. The congregation outgrew the chapel, founded the larger church in Linthicum Heights and let the tiny chapel fall into disrepair.

It was not until 1966 that Linthicum Heights United decided to save Holly Run from ruin.

That year, volunteers took apart the church and rebuilt it brick by brick in a grove behind the larger descendant church. Days before Holly Run was disassembled, Friedrich W. Aschemeyer, a muralist and stencil-cutter from Glen Burnie, copied the patterns of its ceiling fresco on tracing paper. Too ill to paint, Aschemeyer passed them on to the younger artist.

Spencer, who trained as an artist by copying the works of great painters such as Van Gogh, da Vinci and Dali, was hired for $8,000 to paint the fresco.

"It wasn't much, but it was worth it for the experience," said Spencer, adding that he had always wanted a "church to call his own."

Because much of the original ceiling had been destroyed by vandals, the project was fraught with complications. To precisely replicate the fresco's details, Spencer blew up photographs of the ceiling, which allowed him to spot dozens of pastel-colored lines, each one less than an inch thick.

To accurately render the pattern's gold stars, plump doves and flowers, Spencer enlisted the help of an assistant, Bill Kurdel, and a local stencil artist, Linda Thomas. Kurdel moved the scaffolding while Spencer lay on his back on top of it, painting like Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel.

It took Spencer eight months to complete the ceiling. While he painted, church members took him drinks and trays of home-baked cookies. When he stopped, exhausted, he slept in the pews.

"This was my life," said Spencer, running his fingers over the walls, peering up at the ceiling over the tinted round glasses perched on the bridge of his nose.

He said there were times when he suffered from painter's block and was unable to recall a pattern or color. When this happened, Spencer said, he often moved forward with a little help.

"I'd feel a presence in the room, and things would just come to me," he said. "I'd look over my shoulder to see if someone was there, and it would be quiet."

Even with the hole in the ceiling that reveals wooden beams charred by the fire, it is easy to understand how the quaint church could inspire great things. Tucked away in a grove, the chapel is a peaceful place - silent, cozy and warm from the light shining through tall windows. On Friday, the silence was broken by Spencer, who eagerly shared his plans for the chapel's ceiling.

Although he has not signed a contract for the job and has to negotiate payment, Spencer has put aside an array of projects to begin work on Holly Run.

When asked if he will do anything differently this time, Spencer - a self-described perfectionist - said he will not.

"This is a dying art," he said of fresco painting. "There are those out there who do it, but they don't do it the old way."

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