Sarasota Conservators Go International



Situated along the central highlands of Guatemala, the city of Antigua draws art and architecture enthusiasts from around the globe, wanderers flocking to the ruins of colonial age churches, Old Spanish architecture and, of course, the paintings held within. But time takes its toll on all things and great art is no exception, as Kay Zahn, a social worker with the Sarasota County school system, discovered on her trip in 2012. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful the paintings were and what condition they were in,” said Zahn, finding some paintings indiscernible from their wood panel surroundings because of accumulated grime. “Some of them you couldn’t even tell were paintings.”

But Zahn was no hapless observer. Trained and educated in art conservation, including work with the Canadian Conservation Institute and 20 years in private practice with former Ringling Museum head conservator Ted Nightwine, Zahn found herself in a position to help. “I loved Antigua so much—the community and the whole environment,” said Zahn. “I thought, ‘This is something I can do, a gift I can give.’ ”

Zahn heads back to Antigua on Sunday, the third trip in a series dedicated to restoring seven Spanish Colonial paintings inset upon the 30-foot tall Retablo – altarpiece – of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the main chapel of El Templo de San Francisco el Grande. On previous trips, Zahn and her team restored the two larger paintings on the ground level; this trip they plan to tackle two more, clambering over scaffolding to reach the next tier. Ideally, the paintings would be removed from their frames and brought to a lab for conservation, but, absent that possibility, Zahn settles for a gentle but thorough surface cleaning, with the team poring over each painting inch by square inch with cotton swabs. “We’re pretty familiar with how the paintings will clean now,” said Zahn, who estimates the team is “probably cleaning off 100 years of dirt and dust and grime and soot.”

“It’s basically a labor of love,” said Zahn. And the community has responded. Whether it be her right-hand woman Fayanne Hayes, who in addition to assisting in the restoration handles organizational and logistical difficulties that would otherwise consume an international project of this nature, or Reverend Celestino Gutierrez from St. Jude Catholic Church, who helped Zahn obtain the necessary blessing from the Archduke of the Catholic Church in Guatemala in order to proceed, Zahn maintains that the restoration has been a team effort from the beginning. An "international initiative," conservators from across the world have joined the effort, including Therese Charbonneau from Canada and Marion Mertens from New Zealand.

Returning on July 26 with two more paintings scheduled to be completed, Zahn looks forward to finishing the project next summer, restoring the three smaller paintings on the top level of the altarpiece. It’s a finish line four years in reaching, but for Zahn, it was always worth it. “To be able to put your hands to a work of art and see it come to life again is an incredible feeling,” said Zahn. “It’s lifting the veil to see what the artist intended.”

Pictured: Kay Zahn and Therese Charbonneau at work in the summer of 2014. Photo courtesy of: Fayanne Hayes.

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