The man didn’t leave a name or number. He just said he had an old painting that needed fixing, and that he would call back.
He sounded skeptical, and maybe a little reluctant.
But he did call back, and when he did, Bonnie Mattozzi was ready.
As co-founders of the Maine Project for Fine Art Conservation in Portland (also known as Project MEAC), Mattozzi and her husband, Domenico, have grown accustomed to hand-holding and reassurance.
Their mission is serious. They wear white lab coats and latex gloves, and have trained at some of the most prestigious academies in the world. But fine-art conservation is as much about helping clients with their emotions as it is about fixing their paintings.
There are a lot of hugs and tears in this undertaking, Bonnie said.
“People come in, and they are distraught. They think their paintings are ruined and cannot be fixed,” she said. “But we can fix almost anything.”
On Friday, Project MEAC will open its Portland studios for the First Friday Art Walk for the first time and invite the public for a behind-the-scenes view of what they do.
In a town so richly endowed in the visual arts, few institutions operate behind a veil of mystery more than the Maine Project for Fine Art Conservation.
The Mattozzis, senior conservator Katrina Jacques and University of Southern Maine interns Aubin White and Yelena Fiske work in a suite on the fourth floor of the State Theatre Building on High Street. The Mattozzis founded their for-profit fine-art conservator corporation in 1997, but only since last year, when they became a nonprofit organization, have they pulled back the curtain on their work.
Each year, Project MEAC conserves 200 to 300 paintings. Many of its clients are historical societies, libraries and museums, but the majority are private citizens with family heirlooms that need attention.
The gentleman who called and declined to leave a message is a good example. He had an old painting of a trout that had been hanging in a family cottage for more than 100 years. It was grimy and dirty. The canvas was worn around the edges of its wooden stretcher.
According to an inscription on the back of the canvas, WN Norton made the painting in 1891. The fish was pulled from McFarland Cove at Moosehead Lake, weighing 61/2 pounds.
Today, we celebrate a trophy fish with a photograph. A century ago, our ancestors hired a painter to capture the moment.
It’s a handsome trout, speckled in color and looking very much like the fighter it no doubt was. Is it a great painting? Sure it is. Is it valuable? Not likely. But that’s beside the point.
“It probably has no fair-market value, but it’s meaningful to this man, and it deserves to be conserved,” Bonnie said. “We look at the paintings as patients. Each painting is unique. Each has a life of its own.”
OTHER PAINTINGS that the Maine Project for Fine Art Conservation restores do have value. For the First Friday ArtWalk, it will showcase three large canvases by Albert Herter.
The Herter name is familiar in Portland. Herter’s father and uncle, Christian and Gustave Herter, were widely known cabinetmakers and interior designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ruggles Morse hired the Herters to design the interior of the Victoria Mansion, his summer estate in Portland.
The younger Herter also produced furniture and tapestries as well as paintings. Herter, who was born in 1871 and died in 1950, painted the canvases that will be displayed on Friday around 1900. They depict three disciplines of the arts — architecture, painting and sculpture.
With their arched tops, the panels were intended to be placed inside an interior window well, looking into a large room. In one, an architect looks over design plans for a client’s home. The client is Herter himself, and the home being discussed is the Herter estate in the Hamptons of New York.
The others show artists at work — a painter at the easel, his subject posing for a portrait, a sculptor working his material.
The three panels came to Project MEAC from a private out-of-state collector, who asked that they be cleaned and restretched. One had a small tear that needed to be repaired.
Project MEAC will show all three at the art walk. Conservation work on one has been completed; the other two are in various stages.
The process is painstaking. The first step is simply evaluating the work. What’s wrong with it, and what can be done?
They write up a report that conforms to international conservation guidelines, and provide an estimate of the cost. That can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending not on the value of the painting but on the hours required to do the work.
Most smaller punctures can be repaired with a conservation adhesive and gauze patch. Paint can be matched. Canvases can be cleaned. Stretchers can be replaced. The only damage that sometimes cannot be fixed is that from heat and fire.
It’s complex, meticulous and science-based. Tears are fixed with tiny amounts of conservation adhesive. Solvents and detergent solutions are used for cleaning. Color matches are precise and done under natural light. Project MEAC farms out work for new stretchers to local cabinetmakers.
The most common tool of the trade? A cotton swab.
After a painting is hung in a museum or private home, it is verboten to touch it. The oil from fingers can damage the surface. In a perfect world, an art conservator is the last person to lay a hand on a painting.
“After we do our treatment, nobody is going to touch it,” Domenico said.
GENERALLY, THE MATTOZZIS take a conservative approach. Other conservators are more aggressive, preferring to make an old painting look like it just came off the easel.
The Mattozzis prefer doing the minimal amount of work necessary to conserve a painting.
“You want to halt the deterioration process. That is the major goal. Then you take a light cosmetic approach,” Domenico said.
The Mattozzis trained for years. Domenico was born into an artistic family in Naples, Italy. His father was an artist and an architect, and Domenico spent his childhood in the museums of his hometown.
He graduated from an art academy in Naples, and came to the United States to study at Fordham University and Hunter College. He has earned the rank of professional associate with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
Bonnie is a New Yorker with a similar story. Her interest in art began at age 10, and she attended her first class at the Art Student League in New York when she was 11. She studied at Syracuse, the Fashion Institute of New York and New York University, among others.
The couple met at a conservation studio in New York, and moved to Maine in the 1990s to raise a family. They founded their fine-art conservation practice in 1997.
“Our kids were growing up, and we wanted to live in an urban area. We thought there was a need for conservators in Maine. There were few here at the time,” Domenico said.
FOR THE MOST PART, the Mattozzis have worked quietly at their trade, interacting with curators and private collectors, but not in any significant public way.
That changed last year when they became a nonprofit entity. As a nonprofit, they were able to apply for grants.
Both the Davis Family Foundation and the Quimby Family Foundation awarded grants. The Quimby grant stipulated that the Mattozzis provide a certain amount of public education. The open studio for the art walk satisfies part of that requirement.
Project MEAC is also committed to educating young conservators. Currently, they have two interns.
It’s an old-world trade with roots that go back centuries. The Mattozzis enjoy passing their skills on to a new generation.
One of their interns, Aubin White, is from Freeport. She studied environmental science at the University of Maine in Farmington, and is working toward a degree in art history at USM.
White was thrilled to be able to study this field so close to home. She assumed she would have to move to Boston or another big city to do this work.
But mostly, the Mattozzis enjoy the sense of discovery that occurs when someone brings in a painting.
Like the portrait of a client’s ancestor that came in a few weeks ago.
The old man was propped on an easel, looking dignified but tired. The painting had been neglected. The colors were dull and muted.
Bonnie Mattozzi could hardly wait to get started.
“Let’s see what we can do for him,” she said. “He’s really important to his family. He deserves special treatment.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: