Restorative artist feels blessed by the Baptist
When Gianna Salande completed her meticulous overhaul of a statue of Jesus at rest in his tomb, she assumed the emotional project would mark her retirement as a restorer of sacred art.
But barefoot St. John the Baptist – one hand pointing the way to Christ, the other holding the Lamb of God – had other ideas.
Salande saw the chipped and faded plaster figure atop its pedestal inside St. Alphonsus Church in New Orleans and felt an urge to “get to him” as soon as her schedule was free.
“St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus, so I thought it would be the appropriate piece to restore after restoring Jesus,” said Salande, now a year into her inside-out refurbishment of the saint, clad in his celebrated tunic of camel’s hair and sporting the forked beard reserved for sculpted depictions of Christ and his most loyal disciples.
“Jesus was blessed by John the Baptist, and I was also receiving a blessing by (restoring statues) here at St. Alphonsus,” Salande said of her instant connection to the sculpture. “As an artist, I wanted to feel that emotion of Jesus being blessed through this particular piece.”
Wracked with moisture
Salande’s first order of business was to take the statue to the drying chamber of her home studio in Covington for a three-month stay.
“He was filled with black mold and soaking wet to the touch,” said Salande, who dry mopped the interior of the hollow figure through an opening in the base before spraying the cavity with an acrylic-based formula of her own creation that makes plaster surfaces impervious to water and humidity for at least 100 years.
“This acrylic (also) absorbs anything that is not plaster – it will remove any remaining mold that is mixed in with the plaster,” Salande explained.
The exterior of the American-made, roughly 60-year-old statue was in relatively good shape, the artist said. After Salande treated the outer surface with the same acrylic formula she used to draw out impurities from the statue’s interior, she began the laborious task of removing its three layers of paint.
“Someone had come in (in the past) and painted him with an oil-based house paint. That was very interesting to remove,” Salande said, smiling.
Currently sealed and primed, St. John the Baptist is set for the next phase of his resurrection: airbrushing with matte acrylic paints that are loyal to the artwork’s original color palette. St. John’s tunic will be painted a linen white, his cloak a pink-tinged crimson and the cloak’s underside a pale celery green. Salande will use paint brushes to apply a rich, faux gold hue to the statue’s fabric folds.
“It’s traditional to see the gold strips on religious statues,” Salande explained. “The lines will be really easy to follow on this statue because he didn’t have much damage at all.”
Statue once held staff
Paint also will bring to light what the sculptor’s original intent was in regard to what the Baptist is standing on: grass. Two small insertion holes – one in this grass base, the other higher up, near the saint’s chest – indicate that the statue once wielded a walking staff. Salande’s plans for the coming weeks include sculpting a new oak staff, building back the Baptist’s pitted eyes, and painting on eyelashes and eyebrows with the help of thin brushes and a large magnifying glass.
Additional “surgery” to the statue has included filling in holes and cracks, smoothing out the hand and fingers of the saint’s right hand, and using dental tools to carefully chip away crumbling paint from the statue’s ornate pedestal. The latter job took Salande a full year to complete because the plaster was soft and only three millimeters thin in spots.
“It’s a lot of elbow grease,” said Salande, noting that while St. John the Baptist’s ultimate location inside St. Alphonsus Church has yet to be determined, the piece has been restored in a way that will allow future visitors to experience the statue, up close and personal.
“The sealer that I use allows people to be able to touch the artwork,” Salande explained. “There are cultures that want to touch (a holy image or object) when they pray, so if this were to be moved from the pedestal, which happens in churches all the time, people will be able to touch it. I want people to touch it!”
Church of many statues
Salande’s restorative touch at St. Alphonsus also can be seen in statues of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Michael the Archangel and St. Gerard Majella, the patron saint of mothers and expectant mothers, who has his own altar inside the Irish Channel landmark.
A talented metal worker, Salande also restored candle holders in the church’s sanctuary and removed calcified “barnacles” that once filled a pair of holy water fonts at the side entrances. The artist is contemplating her next metal-related project: recreating the missing halo for St. Alphonsus’ Blessed Mother statue of die-cast zinc, using vintage photographs to guide the design.
Other than equipment-specific work that must be completed in her Covington studio, Salande deliberately conducts all her restoration endeavors on site at St. Alphonsus, “so the public and our patrons can understand the process and ask questions,” she said.
“The funniest question I get is, ‘Have you gained any special magical powers while working on the religious pieces?’ My answer to that is, ‘Patience,’” Salande said.
Stuff of dreams
Salande also is asked if her constant interaction with religious-themed art has affected her dreams as she sleeps. Jesus in the Tomb, the riveting statue on which Salande toiled for 15 months, had such an impact, she said.
“In my dreams, Jesus would prop himself up on his elbow and he would look at me and say, ‘Thank you.’ He is still very much alive in me,” Salande said, adding that her recent repairs to the lamb held by St. John the Baptist have been the source of yet another nocturnal drama.
“The lamb looks at me in my dreams,” Salande said. “I think he wants his ear finished.”