ST. IGNATIUS – Seventeen months after a devastating arson caused fire engulfed the Confederated Salish and Kootenai People’s Center in Pablo, eight historic works of art damaged by soot, smoke and extreme heat have been returned, rejuvenated to their former glory.
On Thursday, Joe Abbrescia, a Kalispell-based conservator specializing in restoring damaged works of art, delivered the revitalized paintings.
“Just glad to see them come home again,” said Three Chief Cultural Center program director Marie Torosian. “It just makes us happy. They’ll be able to be seen by everybody and shared by their families.”
During Thursday’s reunion, Abbrescia gave a comprehensive explanation of the complex and tedious process he used to restore the damaged paintings.
First, the paintings had to be stored in a specific way and aired out to remove the pungent smell of soot and smoke. Abbrescia noted the use of baking soda was very helpful during the smell extraction process.
Next, a small cleaning test strip along the painting’s edge was conducted to ensure if the painting could indeed be restored.
“Sometimes my job is not to damage a piece any further,” said Abbrescia.
Using a painstakingly meticulous process of chemical cleaning by hand, Abbrescia explained he used a cotton ball attached to the end of a chopstick to slowly clean the paintings, sometimes doing just one square-inch at a time.
The amount of cleaning required varied depending on how much damage a particular piece sustained.
“You just take every piece as an individual and do what’s needed for that particular piece,” noted Abbrescia.
In addition to the inch-by-inch cleaning, new wooden frames and foam core backings were installed on all the restored paintings.
Not every painting could be restored. More than a dozen pieces given to Abbrescia for examination had endured either too much heat, water or soot damage, rendering them unsalvageable.
“It’s an honor for me to be able to do this, to be a guy that can save these and give them a new life,” said Abbrescia. “This is somebody’s legacy as an artist. So, if I can save something from not going in the trash it means a lot.”
Other restoration specialists are currently working on priceless charred artifacts such as regalia, beadwork and historical photos.
In the upcoming weeks, the Mission Valley community will be able to enjoy the paintings once again as they make their way onto the walls of the Three Chiefs Cultural Center, Museum and Gift Shop located at the Allard Complex along US Highway 93 in Saint Ignatius.
“Everything comes with a story that connects to who made them and who wore them and who held them before, and now they’ve got this story of how they survived the fire,” Torosian said.