Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center – part 71

Part 71: Stormy Weather

“Scenery restoration” means that each scene is “restored to its original appearance.” Restored drops should look almost like new. I have painstakingly taken steps over the years to create a restoration process that not only removes original flaws on the painted scene, but also repairs subsequent damage that occurred over time. The Chaos and New Jerusalem scenes that were hanging during the February 2017 concert at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center looked far worse than when I last handled them in Fort Scott during November 2015.

These were the first drops to be lowered for my husband’s concert. The represented the nineteenth degree. Not all Scottish Rite theaters use this particular scene – the chaos of old Jerusalem that transforms into New Jerusalem. Surrounded by a series of cloud cut drops with bobbinet centers, there is a magically haze to the setting. When I photographed the drops in Fort Scott they looked absolutely beautiful. In particular the painting of chaos was pristine and full of life.

Drop hanging at Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center for February 11, 2017 concert. Side sagging and wrinkles are a direct result of improper restoration techniques and entirely preventable.

The only flaw that I had documented in Fort Scott for this scene was the glue line. It had been collecting dirt over the decades as it slighting protruded from the painted surface and consequently caught settling contaminants. Unlike one-inch opera netting, bobbinet necessitated swaths of glue to secure it to the fabric surround. In some cases, the glue was brushed on while either too hot or too thin. This meant that a continuous scar would run around the cut opening, revealing the glue line on the painted surface.

Drop while hanging in Fort Scott. Notice only flaw along bottom edge is glue line. The dark appearance is contaminants that settled on the protrusion over nine decades.
The result if improper restoration techniques. Detail of additional wrinkles that are created when replacing wooden battens at bottom of historical drops with pipe pockets.

I began to contemplate why this scene hanging for husband’s concert looked so bad on stage. The surprise, anger, and then absolute desolation that I felt during the first set of songs continued throughout the concert as I watched the next three scenes get lowered to the stage. The care and time that I spent during the two hundred forty hours in three weeks of November 2015 seemed an absolute waste. I desperately sought for something positive to come out of this mess as I sat in my seat watching the concert.

People don’t know what they don’t know. Maybe no one else who was sitting in the audience realized that this entire scene was now destroyed and had a very short life in this theater.

It took months for me to realize that this was a perfect opportunity for every future publication, guest lecture, or restoration proposal that I would present from here on out. I now had visual aids of what NOT to do when handling historical scenery collection. Things that I have warned clients about for years – including the CEO and general director – now had pictures to accompany my warnings and overall advice.

For this chapter and the next three installments, I will present how these scenes could have been restored to make them appear “like new” without loosing any of the original painting of Thomas Moses or their historical significance.

As we look at the “before” pictures, you will notice that the major flaw is the glue line. This puckered and raised scar on historical scenery is completely reversible as the hide glue is water-based and will soften with the introduction of water. After cleaning the drop and removing the original bobbinet, the drop is weighted down and the majority of old crusty glue scraped off, the area is gently sprayed with water, removing the remainder of the glue. As the base is fabric, you have to be careful, because if you saturate the fabric too much or puddles of liquid form near the edge, you will cause dye rings as the pigment (color) will also shift and be redistributed in another area of the painting. Once the drop’s edge is flat, the composition is flipped face up for a stabilization spray that will re-attach and dusting pigment back onto the surface.

Once the drop is cleaned, stabilized, and all damage repaired, new bobbinet is attached to the cut opening. If the glue is too thick – it will crack. If the glue is too thin – it will pucker. While attaching the bobbinet, it must have complete contact with the fabric and the glue cannot penetrate the fabric too deeply. Toward the end of the drying it is possible to slightly weight down the edge – though this might be a gamble it has always paid off for me. Timing is everything. If this seems like rocket science, you are right. This is extremely difficult to do on old fabric with dry pigment on the surface. It is not at all like creating a new cut drop.

Finally, when the drop is hung and the bottom battens attached, care must be taken or side wrinkles and extreme sagging will form. Replacing wooden battens with a pipe pockets as previously discussed in installments (eleven, twenty eight, and thirty six) all contribute to the overall appearance of sagging and wrinkles.

The hanging cloud cut drop at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center suffers from many errors during its repair and preparation for hanging.

Note all puckers pulling out from center cut opening showing that the drop shrunk unevenly during restoration.

The stabilization spray saturated the fabric of the drop too much and was likely allowed to pool on the fabric surface. Now you might not notice this if you are doing it for the first time as many believe “the more spray the better.” Unfortunately, this caused the uneven pull of the cut opening as the fabric continued to shrink with the reintroduction of water. This was the direct cause of side wrinkles; without a bottom batten these wrinkles could no longer be minimized during installation.

There is also a slight sheen to the entire scene and a crackled appearance to portions on the stage left side of the cut opening. It is also likely that the size mixture (diluted hide glue) was mixed to strong. In other words the “glue water,” was not thinned enough during preparation.

Remember hide glue is heated up to a syrup and thinned prior to either spraying or brushing on the drop. If the there is too much glue in the mixture, it causes a slight sheen to the painted surface. Dry pigment painting has an extremely matte appearance that never reflects the glare of stage lights, as the scenic illusion would be destroyed.

There was no sheen to any of the painted scenery when we removed it from the lines in Fort Scott.

To be continued…

Painted detail documented while drop was hanging in Fort Scott, Kansas.
Painted detail documented while drop was hanging in Fort Scott, Kansas.
Painted detail documented while drop was hanging in Fort Scott, Kansas.


Painted detail documented while drop was hanging in Fort Scott, Kansas.
Chaos scene hanging in Fort Scott, Kansas.

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