Restorer of artwork embraces every challenge
Ahole in the middle of the painting. Creeping black mold. Fading colors. Rips. Stains. Such are the challenges for art collectors, but none are too difficult for Laura Greiner.
Greiner, who has been mending paintings, tapestries and other aging artworks for more than 30 years, grew up in Galveston working alongside her father as he rehabbed houses across the island.
“We were fix-its,” Greiner said. “And there were always treasures in those houses. We would clean them up and rescue them.”
Greiner left the island to attend college at Sam Houston State University for a degree in art, and when she returned with a new perspective, she realized she could restore damaged artworks for a living.
“My theory is to do the least amount of work to keep it from falling apart,” she said, explaining she doesn’t want her projects to “look” repaired, she just wants them to look as good as they did when they were created.
For instance, she recently was asked to repair a large linen fabric painting that was made in the 1880s. It has a rip in one place and it appears material is deteriorating in another. Her job is to reinforce the fabric, repair the tear and clean the entire painting.
“I will have to put a substrate canvas on the back of this to strengthen the painting, and then I’ll be able to fix it, sew it and clean it,” she said. “I can do this.”
Greiner often is asked to work on paintings that have mold on the surface, she said. The best way to handle such jobs is to put paintings or objects out in the sun for a few hours before cleaning them. Mold hates sunlight and after it’s killed, it easily can be removed, she said.
Many of her projects involve smoke-damaged art, either from fireplaces in old homes or from constant exposure to cigarette smoke. Greiner has different methods of cleaning smoke-damaged art, but usually tests a small area with her secret mixture of cleaners to be sure it won’t harm the artwork.
Frequently, customers present Greiner with items that had been improperly stored in attics or garages and require some serious work. Each job is unique, and that’s what keeps it interesting to her, she said.
“I really enjoy working on these pieces and seeing what we can do to fix them,” she said.
Her art background is invaluable because she often must repaint areas, using a variety of mediums such as oil, acrylics and watercolors. She took a special class in art restoration from a university in California, where she learned that part of the restoration process is research and learning about period materials as well as proper techniques to repair them.
Holly Hanson, co-owner of Antique Warehouse in Galveston, frequently relies on Greiner to repair and restore artwork she has acquired and would like to sell.
“She really does excellent work,” Hanson said, pointing to a brittle paper poster from the turn of the century that Greiner repaired and stabilized. Greiner mended the tattered poster with a stronger backing and patched tears and cuts, perfectly matching red paint applied to touch up where needed. The poster looked perfect.
One of her largest jobs was the cleaning and restoration of 12 life-size statues in the John P. McGovern Hall of Medical History at the University of Texas Medical Branch, she said. The concrete and clay statues represent outstanding figures in medical history, dating back to 2600 B.C. and ancient Egyptian Imhotep, to the turn of the 20th century and Marie Curie, who discovered radium. Greiner cleaned and repaired the sculptures, created by Doris Appel, who limited her artwork to great figures in medical history. The exhibit is on permanent display in “Old Red,” the 1891 Ashbel Smith Building on the medical branch campus in Galveston.
And one of her most frightening jobs was restoring a small Picasso for a friend, she said.
“It was on paper and it had mold on it,” she said. “It scared me to death.”
Still, she welcomes each challenge because each restoration is completely different, she said. Sometimes, she uses a magnifying glass to help her see the minute details that need repair, and she works in her studio with lots of natural light, she said.
“The bigger the job, the more of a challenge,” she said. “I am amazed that some of the artwork has survived until today. Some are so thin and fragile. But I fill in the holes, reline and stretch them, clean and repaint them, and they will continue to be valuable pieces of art.”