ELLSWORTH — The fire that swept through the homestead at Birdsacre-Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary in March of 2014 destroyed many pieces of historical value. Other damage could be fixed but took money and years to do: walls replaced and repainted, stairs and a roof rebuilt, and artifacts removed and then returned.
Falling into the last category were almost a dozen 19th-century paintings that hung on the walls of the late ornithologist Cordelia Stanwood’s homestead on High Street. Although they survived the fire intact, they were damaged to varying degrees by heat, smoke and water.
For Birdsacre’s president Grayson Richmond, the fire was a shock to the system. He and his family have long been associated with the refuge and the Stanwood family home, and he said the “horror and utter devastation” he encountered upon entering the building after the fire initially left him at a loss for words.
“With a lot of the items, you would look at them and wonder, ‘Will this ever be salvageable?’” he said recently. One painting in particular, he said, “looked irreparable.”
Could the paintings be restored? Were they, too, destined to be victims of the fire? How much would it cost to fix them? These were all questions going through Richmond’s mind early on.
“It was one of the areas we were a little nervous about — the expense of restoration,” he said. “They looked pretty bad.”
Enter Joyce Greco. The Bucksport-based fine art conservator and her boyfriend were exploring Birdsacre’s trails and wildlife last year. Something on her car about art restoration caught Richmond’s eye. That is, indeed, her full-time occupation through her own business called Renaissance Fine Art Restoration.
As they got to talking, Richmond showed Greco and her boyfriend around and the subject of the historic paintings inside the homestead came up.
“I said, ‘Boy, I would like to help you with this,’” she said recently. Though she had not worked directly with fire-damaged paintings before, she offered to draw on her other experience and expertise to try and save the oils from the dumpster. Given Birdsacre’s nonprofit status, she also offered to do the work at a greatly reduced cost.
Greco’s experience began with a degree from Columbus College of Art & Design in Columbus, Ohio, in 1981. There she learned about color and paint techniques in every medium, and found one of her strengths was in color matching. She went on to work creating props and exhibits for Universal Studios and have her own mural business.
Repairing murals damaged by floods or burst pipes was a frequent job, and it gave Greco the chance to put her color matching skills to work. She continued in that profession until the economy tanked a decade ago and restoration work became scarce.
The paintings from Birdsacre were dry, brittle and dirty from the fire. Greco took several at a time back to her Bucksport studio to work on them. She decided not to take the paintings out of the frames, she said, “not knowing how they’d behave” if she did.
Her go-to cleaning tool was lavender oil, which she used to remove what the fire had left and to breathe life back into the canvasess. Lavender oil, Greco said, is a gentler cleaner than one often used in the past for cleaning paintings: turpentine.
She often would start out by using a cotton swab to apply the oil to a small section of the painting, to assess its condition, and then proceed as needed. Sometimes she would work by shape, such as the petal of a flower or trunk of a tree. Greco uses a jeweler’s loupe to give her a close-up view of the section of the painting she’s working on and to get a better sense of what she’s dealing with.
Richmond said the paintings are an important part of Birdsacre’s history, as they reflect the legacy of Cordelia Stanwood and her sister, Maria. Richmond said Maria was “multi-talented and very brilliant,” who divorced her husband, became a lawyer and also worked as a professional painter in Boston. Greco said that professional pedigree comes through in the paintings done by Maria.
“She really knew how to paint,” said Greco. “She knew her stuff.”
Greco knows her stuff, too, as she is a member of the American Institute of Conservators. She works carefully and cautiously, and said that on a large portrait of Cordelia’s aunt she spent eight hours cleaning the face alone.
Greco said the use of the lavender oil means the paintings now have more body and feel more alive. She is careful to qualify what she did as a partial restoration, because the paintings could not be returned to the exact state they were in before the fire.
“I cleaned them,” she said. “I fed them. You can’t get rid of all this damage. The damage tells the story of their lifetime this far.”
The paintings at Birdsacre were cleaned once before, and the woman who did the work kept a detailed log. Greco said that proved helpful, and she contacted that conservator to let her know that she, too, recorded her work in case that information is needed in the future.
Richmond, for his part, is extremely grateful for the restoration work Greco has done for Birdsacre. He called their initial encounter last year “complete serendipity” and said her work has “bordered on a miracle.”
“She was a real godsend,” he said. “She not only saved them, but revived and cleaned them. Some of them just glow.”
For more information about Joyce Greco’s work, email her at [email protected] and visit renaissancefineartrestoration.com.