Restoration of Antique Nativity Figures

A Nativity Story

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Around 2000, I came to live in Vernon Rockville, Connecticut, for its houses of healing,  recuperating from injuries from an accident.   Just when I thought my life and work would be downed, maybe permanently, new opportunities found me, like this one:

Saint Bernard's Church here, was just a few blocks from my home, and there was support and friendship and more.  So, when their Nativity Scene was brought out to be set up for its fiftieth Christmas,  I did not mention the fact that the group was very worn-looking and needed repair and restoration.   It was clear that the nativity figures were  much loved by the people and so I just loved it, too.   Later that  year came the easy opening to ask Father if I might restore the figures, to say thank you for the community support for me while healing - especially since I had the interest and love and skills.

Saint Bernard's pastor at the time - and for 33 years -  was Bing Crosby in "Going my Way" brought to life.   The late Father John White had saved the day for me, more than once and I feel privileged to have known him.    He  thought the restoration a fine idea and put it on the list, for his successor.   Father White mentioned that the creche had been there when he arrived but that he was retiring and could not take up the project himself.   In time I met with the pastor who succeeded him, Father Rick Ricard,  and the parish took up the project happily. We  planned, researched the specifics of tech needs for old, early fiberglass;  shopped for the supplies and got to work.

Five minutes on the job and , everyone on the village park shoppes area knew of the project !  It was clear that the Old Nativity Figures were important to them, as they stopped me on my errands to talk about it and ask that I be very careful with them.   I was thrilled with the interest and said so, and asked for more.

"It wouldn't be Christmas without that Creche", one said, " I am 55, and they were here as far back as I can remember."   I understood and reassured them of the care quality;  pleased with the thought that others, in addition to myself, loved those figures.  I felt much better supported in the work ahead. 

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The Old Convent Garage was my studio and 'Step One', of course, was assessment of the details of the task.   I took "Before" photos of the group of figures,  for reference and comparison later, but was stunned-speechless,  when I got it home to process the photos in my computer.    It appeared that, when I snapped the photo of the infant, the light hit the figure so that it seemed to glow,   and I am not a superstitious type, so I smiled and thanked God for the good omen.   The image of this Glowing Infant figure sent me to the site,  the next day, with something special in my spirit. 

 

  To begin the work of restoring fourteen life-sized figures  involved the careful cleaning/preparation of all surfaces and their hollow interiors. And at this point,  I found incised ID numbers and letters and a name  at the foot of the pedestals.   My training in restoration demanded that Provenance be searched whenever possible, so it delighted me to find data on the figures to empower a good search.

"Gasp ! "   It was one of those moments - entering the sculptor's name  brought up a Magazine ad from the 40's, that read: "When famous Sculptor, Dick Wiken, is done with a hard day at the studio, he reaches for ..." - and included a large photo of the artist and more.   The sculptor was well-known enough to be sought for major merchandise ad endorsements. 

Further search identified him, in much better lights, as a world-class sculptor with many fine achievements to his credit,  and the man who designed the head for the famous WPA Doll.  Big Story!   Depression-era US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt acted to get folks back to work, and the Government-created and funded work projects are holy history.    FDR's WPA projects and its products are Archived and honored today, including the now-famous WPA Doll.    People had no work skills, it was found, and some of those hired and trained to make the doll learned to use SCISSORS for the first time.  

This reading  made me think that this Nativity Group manufacture was an FDR/WPA-inspired project, too, since the plant that manufactured it was invented to put people back to work during the last of the Great Depression. 

I took my data to Father Rick and Deacon Mike and the new assistant, Father John, and the parish secretaries.   What a delightful moment, and happy hum among us, like on the "Antiques Roadshow" program many of us never miss.   I also got a bit more supportive Provenance from emails to Dick Wiken's area historical society and the Art College he helped to found.    Nice.    Reassured that their security needs were met, in respect for its arts-intrinsic value, it was time to stop the research and get to work.    Needless to say, I was helped again, in my desire to do "Something Beautiful for God", as Mother Teresa said.    With this respectable Provenance,  I was allowed the proper time and degree of perfection in my work.   And I was paid.

The Community must have truly loved that group!   After more than 50 years,  all 14 figures were there and intact !   When the word got around about the restoration, a few men of the parish found me and they were jubilant:   their spokesman was a descendant of the "old-timers" of the parish men, and he wanted me to know that there had been " a special and holy thing", for many years, concerning the care of that Creche - though after a time, no one knew why.    As the sampietrini at the Vatican in Rome, a named group to care for the church artifacts especially the Creche Figures.   The duties were simply passed down from the previous aging one to a young apprentice of a sort , and in time there was a fading of the understanding of the thing, like the paint on the figures itself.  The numbers of the group dwindled and faded, but remained.  One of the now-mature "apprentices" , was thrilled to find me to celebrate this restoration of spirit as well as figures.

The very old paint was  pale and chipped and flaked, and in some places showed the wear from hurried efforts to repair it in the past. Most of the figures showed pitting - a natural dehydration effect with old fiberglass "Blo-molds".  Many had cracks and the delicate Infant Jesus figure had lost a thumb, a toe and one arm had large holes in two places. 

But essentially, the more I studied the figures, the more impressed I was with the details in their designs.  They endured in the molding and offered many possibilities and restoration options. Very nice , evolved, were the facial features , and that meant I might go for some lovely effects, and details in costumes and trimmings meant a fine and fancy finish to it all. 

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My six week project was complete in six months.  This was partly due to the fumes from the cleaner - thinner needed to produce the right paint flow.   I could only expose myself to them for a few hours a day, at most. When I began in July, the heat truly provoked the effect of the fumes, as well, and the first day's painting found me overcome, and I laughed,   as I noticed there were paint splashes alllllll over one wall for me to clean later.   I rested out in the air and got my breathing back to normal, for fear of being observed fumedrunk.       "Planning my play" fixed the issue;  I would do all the related tasks, then open the fumey stuff, work fast , and close it up, then finish for the day.   I must say I enjoyed the good chat time with this angel and her friends, the donkey, sheep, wise men and Holy Family. I felt I was certainly in good company.

 

From July till December, the task was Labor of Love and devotion and near-daily application.    I was glad I lived so nearby, and liked my walk, to and from the studio. The walk home cleared my breathing, and I took plenty of deep breaths to be sure, and I did not get as much as a sniffle from the work.   After that, my only oddity was the fun with these grownup holy action figures I was playing with...NO apology.

I began with the Angel - so she could bless the project and keep an eye on me while I worked.   The effects I was able to obtain were very encouraging.   The infant's injuries wanted more attention.   It just seemed so nice to be able to give the Infant statue a nice new thumb, and say a prayer and sing the Jesus lullaby while I worked at it!    I guess a girl never tires of playing dollies.  Whatever it was, it was very sweet.  When our famous autumn rainstorms struck, it was easy to run over and drape the figures in plastic and put my sweater on Jesus to keep him warm.   Life! 

I prayed and worked with a feeling of privilege at the Statues of Mary and Joseph.   I talked with the Shepherds and Wise Men and connected with the Lambs and the good Donkey.  The faithful animals were sentinels as worked. 

Dirt and flaking were removed, and surfaces smoothed.  I had a basic palette of the red, blue and yellow and white and gold paints, and mixed the rest. The expense was for some real gold leaf outdoor striping trim tape for the bits of gold on the Wise Men's crowns,  and possibly,  hems and sleeves and belting on the other figures. 

In spite of gloves and mask,  I got fume-y and dirty sometimes.  I was glad I was working alone.  Father John comes from an arts family and so he took interest in artistic consulting - very helpful!   Thank you so much.

I sang and swept and cleaned and re-cleaned the studio , since dust in the paint would not do, and dust seemed to build up in the garage easily,  from the direction of the breezes at the foot of the drive, and I had to keep the door open while I worked for safety ventilation. The only remedy was frequent sweeping,  when all the paint was dry, before resuming with wet paint . 

The putty/filler repaired the cracks and the parish sexton did some wood restorations to the wooden support for the donkey and found an area heater when the weather cooled, and extra lights, when the days shortened.  I had my own key so I could access the work as needed.  Each day,  the painting called me,  and seeing the grouping come back to life was so rewarding,  I wished I was rich and did not need to be paid for my work - I'd have donated for the privilege of doing that restoration.   

It may have been the fumes, but sometimes I'd smile and feel the lambs and donkey were faithful pets,  the shepherds my team mates,  the wise men's approval to win and keep would seem the thing.   And all in homage to the Holy Family who changed the world.   I remembered my Mother and her solemn processionals to set up and perfect our own family's tabletop Nativity scene - how she'd love to see me now, following suit with such a show!   Easy.

And the work completed well.

Time to set up the Nativity Figures had arrived, and the last sweep with the paintbrush on the rosy cheek of the Infant Jesus figure!   The men of the parish set up the life-sized lighted wooden stable, nestled in beds and stacks of hay. 

Once again, the Angel was called on first - and her figure attached over the door of the stable to hover in exultation.  

Donkey, lambs, shepherds, Magi, and finally Mary and Joseph completed the scene of waiting for the Coming of Savior.  The Infant figure would not be placed till near Christmas Eve.   A photo of the creche I restored appeared, at the Saint Bernard Church website Home page, front and center at the 2007 Christmas season. 

There was also a note about the Restoration and the invitation to the parish to join the annual event of caroling and placing the Infant in the creche on Dec.22, 2007 after the 5pm Vigil Mass.   In December, it was already evening at that time of day, and so lunaria were lit and placed for their glow along the path from church to site of the creche - all followed and gathered round and began the carols.

Then, Father Rick Ricard, pastor, brought the Infant figure from the rectory to the site, and presented it to a little boy and a little girl, who, together, placed the Infant in the manger.   I sang to the Infant represented by that figure, often, with it in my lap, at the work, and this time, I was joined by quite a chorus and lead by our priests.

They say it was chilly out, but not at the Creche that night!

I was glad we had chosen the super-weatherproof paints used on fiberglass yachts - it was clear and cold, but, even if it was freezing rain, the glow of the figures would win through for many years.     In fact, it glows naturally with an nearly-spooky photo-realistic effect - if the air gets very cold the skin tones change hue,  just as though they were live.     And then when it warms, the color returns to normal.   Did I pray too hard, and "charm" in my song too much, while I worked, to win this "extra" from the Muse and the Angels?   "Not me but God through me" I was taught and so felt free and fine about it all.

I was enjoying the pageant, at the back of the crowd - the tender way of the little children as they placed the Infant in the Manger.  The Nativity Figures in place were the reward, for me, of six months of clean, scrub, putty, repair, prime, paint, correct and protective topcoat.

 I had enjoyed every moment of it, a delight, and honor, a pleasure, more than worth the fumes and mess and work.   It felt very nice, that night, just viewing the completed figures, and the story they told, arranged to commemorate the Scene that changed the world!   Father called me up to the front of the group to recognize me, personally, and the work involved - I used to enjoy hearing the word "gratified" when others were in my place, and now that word was mine to say and feel. The moment was the kind of treasure nothing can mar. 

I simply said "Thank you for the honor of performing the happiest task of my life" I wanted to say "It's about the Infant, not art or politics."     But did not and wished I had.   And I enjoyed the applause and warmth of the moment. 

All was merry and bright!  Caroling continued and then a cheer followed by the invitation from Father to join the reception at the rectory, which proceeded to the church hall for refreshments and more chat, to make a special evening marking the completion and beginning of special things! 

NEW! Latest book about the famous Sculptor features these figure molds, including the famous WPA Doll's head, and leading architectural sculptures.     

Dick Wiken, Milwaukee Architectural Sculptor

I hope you enjoyed my story, and share this page with friends. Most of all ... Happy Holiday!    May we all appreciate the very best life lights in warm and prosperous times  and when things seem dark and cold!