Rebirth of mural is a lengthy labor

Artist who painted Linthicum chapel in '70s works to repair damage caused by a fire

December 11, 2005|By CHRIS YAKAITIS | CHRIS YAKAITIS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Michelangelo spent more than four years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In re-creating his own masterpiece in Linthicum, Ron Spencer might come close to matching that.

Since late last year, the 60-year-old Baltimore artist has been painstakingly restoring the hand-painted ceiling, walls and chancel of the Holly Run Chapel, a work he first completed in the late '70s. After lightning struck the chapel in July 2004, causing severe fire and water damage that marred his original work, he promptly answered the call to reproduce his favorite accomplishment.

Glancing up at the ceiling of the chapel just after the fire, Spencer says, was devastating.

"When I came in, the whole center was out. I looked at it and I thought that right here was cut out of me," he says, gesturing to his heart. "I just felt so empty. I felt like something was missing. It was a funny feeling."

For Spencer, the restoration is clearly a labor of love, not to be rushed.

But the halting progress over the past year has somewhat concerned officials at Linthicum Heights United Methodist Church, which owns the chapel and uses it throughout the year.

As the church's lay leader, Dale Townsend has coordinated the restoration effort and served as a liaison between the board of trustees and Spencer.

"A year ago we thought we'd be a lot further along than we are now," he says with a laugh. "We really don't have a date for completion. I wish we did."

To those who work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and generally sleep at night, Spencer's work habits can be mystifying. He only occasionally appears during the daylight hours and prefers working through the night. A weeklong stretch of seeming inactivity can suddenly give way to 10-day marathons of nearly round-the-clock painting. And he may not have a good night's sleep in weeks or even months.

"He doesn't need eight hours of sleep or even a chunk of sleep. He takes catnaps," says Sandra Hohne, an artist from Westminster who has helped Spencer with the project's intricate stenciling. "It goes with the territory. Trust me, I have done artwork at three, four o'clock in the morning. You don't normally work a regular day if you're an artist. You work when you can.

"It's kind of been sporadic, but it's been interesting."

Over the past year, Spencer has brought Hohne and several others on board to help with the project, from local artisans to a son-in-law from upstate New York and an artist friend from San Francisco.

A self-described "hippie painter," Spencer very much looks and acts the part.

On a recent Monday morning, Ben Morton, Spencer's son-in-law, perches in the corner of the chapel on scaffolding, detailing a corner portion of the artwork. Spencer wanders the floor below in a pink turtleneck, brown shirt and pinstriped suit vest, offering advice and instruction. His long, graying hair emerges from beneath a Ravens cap and is knotted loosely with a purple bandana. Throughout the morning he makes trips from the chapel to a small camper he's parked beside it, returning alternately with tools or more coffee.

"Ron's a character," says Hohne, who primarily restores antique dolls at her Second Childhood store in Reisterstown. "Anyone can call themselves an artist, but in this job, only Ron is the artist. Everyone else is a worker."

The chapel is filled with scores of paint cans, brushes and rollers. Scaffolding rises to the ceiling on both sides of the main entrance, with paint buckets dangling on rope at the edge of the frames. On the floor are piles of stencils, including some originals that Spencer kept from his previous work at the chapel and rediscovered in his studio last fall.

"It's like if you learn a language and you don't use it for 10 years," he says. "And then you go to the country and you find out what comes in handy."

The pace may seem slow to some, but Spencer is determined to improve upon his earlier work.

Built in 1828, the Holly Run Chapel was disassembled and reconstructed at its current location in a small grove of trees behind the church's main building in 1966. Several years later, Spencer was called upon to complete the interiors using stencils of the original artwork that had been traced by Friedrich W. Aschemeyer, a local muralist. At that time, however, he was encouraged to lighten some of the tones in the painting, rendering much of the detail work nearly invisible.

"When I came back to do it I said, `I'm going to do this church, but I'm going to ask you if I can do it closer to correct,'" he says.

The crew has faced various setbacks that have further complicated the restoration process.

Spencer's mother died this year. Hohne's father, James Allis, a member of the church, died in September. And in August, George Figgs, another local artist who had worked extensively with Spencer through much of the year, was beaten up while bicycling in Baltimore.

"[Figgs] had to go through a lot of physical therapy," Hohne says. "There's hope that he might return soon."

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