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Salisbury art restorers are ‘masters of disguise’

Paintings age. Very slowly.
“Much like people do,” said Randy Smith, an art restorer in Salisbury who’s been in the biz since the early ’70s. “You don’t notice it day to day, but after it’s been a while the varnish yellows, there can be nicotine, smoke or mold stains; the paint can blister or crack; even fire sparks can burn small holes.”
That’s when you call Randy and his wife, Linda Hampton Smith, to help restore the piece to it’s original quality.
This couple has mastered the art of disguise. They flawlessly mask imperfections with reconstruction work by Randy and Linda’s fine in-painting (filling in areas with missing paint).
“Our goal is to try to get the painting as authentic as possible, as near to the original as we can determine,” explained Randy. “But we must confine our work to the damage and the damage alone.”
Yes, there are rules to art restoration.
Another rule: “Everything we do has to be reversible,” said Randy. “That’s museum standard.”
So, the Smiths use special solvents to cleanse the painting of grime and other environmental stains, as well as overpainting (painting outside the damaged area) by prior art restorers. “Sometimes people take liberties,” Randy said, pulling up an image of a piece they worked on. The first image shows a painting of a nude man draped in furs; the second image (after the Smiths cleaned the painting) revealed the nude with no furs. “Someone just decided to cover him up,” Randy summed up.
Once the painting is cleaned, and rips are restored using museum-grade adhesives and mounting boards, it’s Linda’s turn.
“I’m painting in the same colors as the original work,” said Linda, a self-described “perfectionist” who studied studio art in Paris and New York. “Pale colors are the hardest because it’s easiest to see my work.”
It’s not often you hear an artist complaining about “seeing their work,” but in the world of art restoration, the goal is to go unnoticed. So layer by layer, Linda paints her way into obscurity until you can’t tell where the original ends and Linda’s work begins.
“We have a sharp division of labor,” said Randy.
“But we do make a good team,” added Linda.
The couple first met in the late ’70s while they were both working at the Phyllis Lucas Gallery in Manhattan, N.Y. Randy did conservation of prints, frames and paintings, and Linda was a hand-colorist of antique engravings. From there, the then 31-year-old Randy, took a job in 1980 with the Joel Zakow Art Restoration studio in SoHo, NYC, whose clients included the Museum of American Folk Art, Sotheby’s, and many nationally renowned galleries and collectors.
A year later, Randy established his own private practice along side his work at the SoHo studio. And by 1984, Linda and Randy were married, partners in business and raising two boys in the city.
Life was fast and the work was furious. “I worked in the studio in New York for nine years and we did about 1,000 paintings per year,” said Randy.
By ’89 it was time to slow things down, so the couple decided to move to Vermont.
“It felt like we were moving to the outback,” said Linda, a Brooklyn native, who spent several years teaching art at Leicester, Ripton, Weybridge and Salisbury elementary schools.
“It reminded me of growing up,” mused Randy, a country boy from the flats of Illinois.
Twenty years ago they settled in their home in Salisbury, where they still restore work in the basement. They process at least 100 paintings a year for private clients and dealers, and have been at it for 28 years — roughly 3,000 paintings — which brings their total up to 12,000 paintings restored in their combined careers. But that huge number hasn’t slowed their enthusiasm.
“Every time you sit down with a painting, your heart is in your throat,” said Randy. “You never know what you have until you start working with it.”
“It’s very enriching to be surrounded with the art, and the history and stories that go with it,” Linda added.
But the reward is not a masterpiece of their own, it’s about the appreciation that comes along with a job well done.
“Seeing the person’s face when they look on the painting after it’s been restored is incredible,” Randy said. “They see the painting like they remember it as a kid.”
“It’s very touching,” Linda agreed.
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