FROM THE VAULTS OF CCW: Restoring History
Decorative Restoration Program Benefits Pipeline to
By ELEANOR LEE YATES
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The green marble with its pearly veins looks regal and stately. So does the rich, dark mahogany nearby.
Mahogany? Ha. Marble? Look again. It's all fake. It's plywood transformed by students in the Decorative Restoration Program at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College.
Students in this unique one-year, full time course not only learn how to restore old painted surfaces but create dazzling new finishes, from faux wood and marble to stenciling, glazing, gilding and bronzing.
They learn to paint whimsical trompe l'oeil, in and use combs and plastic bags to create the latest interior looks as well as recast ornamental plaster.
Students are clamoring to he selected for the Decorative Restoration Project, the only one of its kind in the United States.
Birth in Restoration
It was at the Biltmore Estate here that the Decorative Restoration Program was born in 1988.
William Cecil, an ancestor and the current owner of Biltmore Estate, had been importing craftsmen from England to do decorative restoration to the mansion, a 250 room French Renaissance chateau built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890s.
Cecil had the idea of training local people in an European style school in conjunction with Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College.
Biltmore financed the program for two years before handing it off to the college and to teacher Derick Tickle.
A native of Warrenton, England, Tickle began his career as an apprentice craftsman, later starting his own business as well as becoming an examiner for the City and Guilds program, of which the Decorative Restoration Project is a part.
The author of several books and a video on decorative finishes, he is called on every few years to help paint shields and coats of arms on one of Parliament's buildings.
In 1993, Tickle changed the program to better suit American needs.
"The English program involved preserving buildings 1,000 years old. They have more brick buildings, there's more wooden buildings here. There's more latex paint here. In England, there's more oil enamels," he said. And England boasts ornamental plaster everywhere. So in addition to learning about making molds and recasting plaster and preserving old painted surfaces, students learn time honored specialty paint formulas for furniture using milk or beer, and how to make whitewash out of lime juice. Tickle also introduced more trendy aspects, such as the decorative finishes featured in the latest shelter magazines. Another change Tickle made was dropping the metric system used in the London program.
Work of Art
The program prepares students to join firms which specialize in restorative work, or work for themselves. Historic government buildings, churches and residences require restorative work. The five largest restoration companies in the nation are well aware of Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College's reputation and regularly call Tickle for job applicants.
Because decorative finishing is increasingly popular in homes and businesses, many students find work with interior designers or on their own.
Asheville, a city that boasts not only Biltmore but many Victorian, neo classical and Art Deco buildings, has benefited from the students' work. One of the first projects, in 1989, was working on Asheville's City Hall. Students restored the original colors of the seal.
One of the most challenging ongoing projects was the library ceiling at Biltmore. The room's ceiling features a grand work of art, "The Chariot of Aurora," by 18th century Italian painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini.
Vanderbilt brought the painting to Biltmore from the Pisani Palace in Venice. The painting is considered the most important work of the artist today. Most were destroyed during World War 11 in Europe. The painting was installed on plaster on the library ceiling, and over the course of 100 years the plaster, was beginning to crumble and moisture was getting in.
"The painting had 13 panels, so this was done in sections. We removed the panels, scraped off the old adhesives and replaced the old canvas on the back,” Tickle explained. Before the panels were reattached to the ceiling, the plaster was repaired.
The Breakfast Room at Biltmore features much ornamental plaster on the ceiling and the fireplace. Students restored the plaster back to its original beauty.
Two years ago, students worked to restore the walls of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The famous writer grew up in the heart of Asheville.
Students in the program worked on the Smith-McDowell House on campus, the oldest brick house in Buncombe County. The college owns the house and leases it to the Western North Carolina Historical Association. Students restored plaster and painted the interior.
Details of the Craft
Students may obtain a craft certificate or an advanced craft certificate. The program runs from January through December, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. The students listen to lectures on paint composition, surface preparation and tools and equipment. They learn such details as when to use a brush made from badger fur and when to use one made from a squirrel's coat.
For their final project the 18 students decorated "rooms" partitioned off in Decorative Restoration department, a former gymnasium on the college campus. The decor changes regularly. Each year an open house is held for the public to see the latest (and the oldest) styles of decorative finishes.
In one room a student demonstrated trompe l'oeil, which in French means "to fool the eye," by painting an armoire on the wall. Stacks of suitcases and other accessories give the painting depth.
Some rooms feature gray, blue, black and green "marble," some feature intricate stenciling -- not the kind with pigs and chickens. One student painted a free-hand coat of arms on the wooden floor. Another's project was state-of-the-art sponge painting.
"Sponge painting can be done very badly or it can have wonderful results," said Tickle, referring to the trend that's showing up in bathrooms and bedrooms across the country.
Marbleizing is extremely tricky, despite what the TV decorating shows tell you. A common mistake is making the veins too strong rather than subtle Tickle said.
One panel displays a crackle finish, created by thousands of dabs with a brush tip. Another wall features, unframed prints as part of the wall covering, a common 19th century trend in England. The student uses tea bags to stain the wall for an aged look. Another wall features delicate gilding around a plaster column.
Student Lyna Hanley of Asheville, a former flight attendant, said new students can be intimidated by all the program entails.
"But once you learn some basics, it all makes sense. You understand the concepts of color and blank," said Hanley, who would love to work with museums.
"We spend a lot of time practicing techniques," Tickle said. One requirement for the course is being able to work on scaffolding from 50 to 100 feet off the ground. This does deter some applicants, Tickle said. Students learn how to operate scaffolding, as well as quality control, blueprint reading and customer and public relations.
About 60 percent of the program's students are from the area. The rest come to Asheville from all over the country and some from around the world, some waiting for years for one of the coveted slots. Students range in age from 20 to 65, but most are in their 20s and 30s.
Tickle tries to interview each applicant personally, interviewing those who live far, by phone. There is usually a second interview process, during which Tickle looks for enthusiasm.
"You don't have to be a good artist," Tickle says. He is looking for serious students eager to work hard to master the techniques.
Student Jan Lambrechts comes to the program from Belgium.
"I had learned about decorative finishes in Europe but have really learned about wood graining here. I also didn't know anything about making plaster molds, and we've learned about that," said Lambrechts, who plans to work in restoration either in the United States or in Europe.
Liz Usry of Greenville, S.C., walked through the laboratory rooms, admiring the work. She starts the program next semester. Usry heard about the program from friends, one who works on a screen set in Los Angeles, the other who works with an interior designer. Her dream is to restore old buildings.
"My friends learned so much here," said Usry. "They loved the projects. You get a lot of information, but then you have leeway on what you want to work on. You can choose your projects."