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Sitka painting restored, 130 years later

SITKA, ALASKA

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“A volunteer about a year and a half ago was helping us organize a little bit in the back room, and this was laying in a corner with a whole bunch of other paintings pushed up against it,” said Bob Medinger, executive director of the society and its museum.

 

“This one just looked special. And then we saw the date. We could barely see the signature and the date, it was so discolored. And we thought, ‘Wow. What have we got here?’”

 

The answer to his question – “what have we got here” – is an 1879 oil-on-canvas depiction of the U.S.S. Jamestown, anchored in Sitka channel.

 

“It was in terrible condition,” he said. “The frame in the back had almost burst through the canvas, the cracks were unbelievable, I mean, just how it was laying in a corner.”

 

EXTENDED AUDIO
Click here for more clips of our interview with Dawne Steele Pullman.

Enter Dawne Steele Pullman, professional art conservator, who sits next to a window inside “The White House,” an old home in Sitka now used by the historical society.  She’s sitting next to the window at this table, with the painting on an easel in front of her.  She has a palette dotted with blues and greens and a teeny tiny little brush, which she’s barely touching to the canvas.

  

“You can’t rush these things,” Steele Pullman said. “They take time, and the painting lets you go only so far each step of the way.”

 

The painting is 17.5 inches tall by 29 inches wide, and for the last two weeks, Steele Pullman has sitting right here, by the window, working centimeter by centimeter on every little detail.  The corner of a cloud.  The lip of a chimney.  A couple trees on Mt. Verstovia.

 

If the paintings are patients, Steele Pullman is a skilled surgeon.

 

“I use everything from what a doctor might use, scalpels, as well as cutting knives, I use dental tools, I find those handy for digging in cracks and digging out little debris bits. I sometimes have feathers for being able to get debris that gathers between the canvas and the back of the strainer. I have brushes of all sizes from zero to about three.”

 

Steele Pullman was born in the United States and raised in Europe from age 7, in England, France and Italy. Her restoration training comes from Italy. She earned her master’s degree in Florence. Now, she travels.

 

“I am a gypsy conservator. I roam the world as kind of the Red Cross of conservation and I have clients and work all over the world. I just came out of Hong Kong, doing some work for galleries and private individuals there. And then I have clients also in Europe and throughout the U.S.”

 

She’s worked on paintings by Matisse and Renoir for Matisse’s grandson. She spent seven months restoring the mural in the mess hall at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

 

Each work of art has a story. Steele Pullman says this painting, the one of the U.S.S. Jamestown parked in front of Sitka, was restored once before, probably in the 1940s, when art restoration really caught on in the United States.

 

“And I think that’s maybe what happened with this piece,” she said. “However, the person that previously restored it definitely was very diligent and enthusiastic, a little too enthusiastic, and in some of their restoration they had gone over all the cracks that were existing in the piece sometimes a little too enthusiastically, by making a few more cracks.”

 

But the difference between the work as it was found a year and a half ago, and the work after Steele Pullman’s treatment, is night and day.  Almost literally. The yellowish-black spots in the sky where cracks had eaten away at the paint are now a clear blue. The ship in the foreground almost pops off the canvas.

 

What was a dingy picture stuck in a store room is now an almost living, breathing record of the U.S.S. Jamestown and its mission in Sitka to to try and ease tensions between the Americans and the Tlingit. The ship was commanded by a guy named Lester Beardslee.

 

“The amazing piece of the story was this Captain Beardslee,” said Medinger, “who came in here not with the idea that might makes right, but with a much more compassionate approach to try to deal with these problems. Yes, this warship was bristling with guns. And you’ll note in the painting it’s parked right in front of the village. That was no mistake.”

 

But Beardslee’s approach to dealing with the problems, Medinger says, was to hire Tlingits and Americans to work side-by-side. They were policemen together, they destroyed stills together, and helped establish local government. A document he wrote, reporting to the government on his efforts in Sitka, is still in Sitka’s library.

 

And then there’s the painting.

 

“After this was done, the artist made a couple copies, we believe,” Medinger said. “And in fact, there’s one in the Anchorage Museum, and we think there’s one in Seattle. When my volunteer was researching this, we actually got ahold of a gallery in Seattle and sight unseen, they offered us $40,000 for it, right then and there, as horrible as the condition was.”

 

The condition is no longer horrible, of course, but the painting is NOT for sale. Medinger says he hopes to have it on display in the museum sometime this fall.

(Photos by Sam Heindel, curatorial intern at the Sitka Historical Society & Museum)


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