Local conservator and MFAH director discuss fine art restoration

Local art community remains optimistic about Notre Dame rebuilding, restoring

HOUSTON – On Tuesday, French officials toured the damage inside the historic Notre Dame Cathedral just a day after a fire left two gaping holes in the ceiling.

The local Houston art community, with its burgeoning art scene, has many ties to Paris. Local art experts and conservators weighed in on the process of restoration and sent their support to a community that is in recovery.

As fire devoured the ceiling and spire of the 800-year-old French Gothic cathedral, hearts all over the world were affected. Notre Dame, losing its spire, was a powerful image that remains in the minds of art enthusiasts, even in Houston.

"Notre Dame was a symbol of Paris and to see it in flames was very emotional," said Gary Tinterow, director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

However, among the ashes is a rose-colored ray of hope. On Tuesday, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is still standing. The focus is on moving ahead, as well as figuring out what happened.

The goal: "To bring this magnificent building, the symbol of France, of Paris, of Christianity, of Europe, back to life," Tinterow said.

Tinterow expects that the restoration of historic site will take more than a decade and a lot money.

"With today's technology, with the computers, with lasers, the French, who have an extraordinary capacity with restoration, will be able to rebuild it. It will take hundreds of millions of euros," Tinterow said. "But I see that people like the Pino family have already pledged 100 million euros. President (Emmanuel) Macron said he would make all the resources available. I imagine it will take a least a decade, maybe more."

As for the restoration, St Mark Fine Arts Conservation Master Conservator, Mercede' Shabal Colby said she is wishing Paris the best and remains optimistic.

"Art is extremely resilient and durable. You can do a lot with a piece of art that's been damaged," Shabal Colby said.

Shabal Colby's immediate family is in Paris. She, though, works in Houston at the St. Mark Fine Arts Conservation facility which sits at what used to be an old car repair shop on Main Street in the Museum District. She comes from generations of artists and married Houston architect Rudolph Colby. Shabal Colby worked for the very first conservator in Houston and ended up buying the practice with Co-Master Conservator Hector Valdez.

"St. Marks has really worked with a lot of ecclesiastic art," Shabal Colby said.

Shabal Colby said restoration is different for every individual piece. The general process involves, in part, analyzing when the art was made, what it is made of and what conditions it has faced.

"The degrees matter. There is smoke damage, then there is the burn, there is the soot -- the amount of it -- and how much smoke penetrated to the fabrication of the pigment," Shabal Colby explained.

She and Tinterow both agree said advanced technology brings vast possibilities with lasers and chemicals, among other tools, that are able to help conservators do their work. Shabal Colby said, in many cases (but not always), older art is sometimes easier to restore.

"If you have a piece of art that is 100 years or 200 years, you have a much better chance of restoring it than a painting that was painted last year," Shabal Colby said. "A painting that was just painted yesterday, the pigment is not really cemented enough, it would be very difficult to remove smoke and residues because the pigment (would go) with it."

As for Notre Dame, officials said the "main works of art" have been saved along with the renowned Crown of Thorns and the three iconic rose windows. The stone structure, miraculously, still stands.

"Wonderful candelabra, all the paraphernalia needed for the Mass," Tinterow said.

Tinterow said cathedrals, with their dry wood and high ceilings, are unfortunately prone to fires. However, he said Paris will rebuild and the building has been well documented.

"Fortunately, we have great drawings and photographic representation. That spire will be recreated," Tinterow said.

Many revered sculptures including those of the 12 apostles were removed days before the fire. The art community in Houston is sending its love to Paris.