Kimberly Lawler applies a layer of paint to the front-of-house backdrop at the Masonic Temple Theatre on Thursday evening. The drop is one of 13 chosen for restoration and preservation in the newly renovated auditorium.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
In the upstairs auditorium in the Masonic Temple on Fifth Street, Kimberly Lawler kneels down to pick off a bit of foil paper from a demon’s mouth. Holding it under the light, the paper has lost its shimmer, covered with oily soot and brittle enough to crack.
“Thank God foil paper hasn’t changed in 100 years,” she jokes.
Lawler is a professional scenery painter and restorer, and since mid-December, has been hard at work restoring 13 drops at the Winona Masonic Temple. The first two, one of three depictions of Hades and a front-of-house drop, are laid out on the theater floor for Lawler and Winona local John Durfey to examine and bring back their luster.
“This isn’t a little painting you can hang in your bedroom. These are huge, and demand a huge theater,” she explained.
The 13 drops are part of the original 98 drops housed in the theater, each painted in the early 1900s. In April 2017, the drops were available for public viewing to determine which to salvage and restore, and the following month, the Winona City Council selected 10 to be preserved and installed in the newly updated auditorium, with three more added later.
Lawler had originally planned to start the $76,650 restoration project in August, but due to construction delays and dust, the first drops came down on December 14 and the restoration began, with one new drop painted every week.
With drops as old as these, the process of restoration is a unique one, Lawler said. It’s not as simple as just painting over it. “You want to look at conservation first instead of restoration,” Lawler said. “People are here to see 100-year-old paintings. Nobody wants to see Kim’s paintings.”
For each hand-painted drop, the process begins the same. The massive muslin painting is brought out and carefully rolled open and cleaned in the process. Caked onto each side is more than a century of oil and soot from coal, gasoline, and settling dust, which needs to be buffed out before any painting is done. The difficulty is compounded with the composition of the paint –– the drops were painted with a mixture of animal glue and pigment, Lawler said, along with other adornments including crinkled foil paper and netting. Each side has to be buffed out with a dry sponge to keep the paint or muslin from being ruined.
“It literally is like wax on and wax off,” Lawler said, referencing the famous scene from the 1984 film “The Karate Kid.”
The next step after cleaning is fixing the muslin itself. Often times, drops are damaged in any number of ways, Lawler explained. There may be tears, holes, bite marks from mice or even just faulty repair jobs from decades ago.
Before moving into conservation, Lawler worked as a scenic artist for theater and live production including as a set painter on “Sesame Street Live.” In her work, she often worked with theater sets, which were created to be eventually retired.
“Over the years, backdrops get damaged, get repainted, and then get sent back out. This is a different kind of preservation,” she said.
Fixing the muslin is a process in itself, she said, with holes and tears each requiring different procedures. She may glue sides together, add extra muslin on the back, or in the case of high-friction areas, use canvas to create a stronger surface. The original creators were not making these pieces to last, but instead to be used.
“These were never intended to be here in 100 years, not in their wildest dreams,” Lawler said.
After the paintings are pulled back together, the painting begins. Lawler explained that she tries to keep the restoration as close to the original process as possible, pointing to a 10-gallon jug of animal glue and several dozen bins of pigment at her work station. She even dyes sets of opera netting to be the perfect color of blue used in those early days.
“I’ll try to look into what that particular lodge did with [the drop] and compare it to what the client wants,” she said.
There are several concessions she makes, however. For instance, the glue used at the time was both expensive and brittle, so for the replacement of the netting on the Hades drop, Lawler will use a modern glue that is more pliable and easy to control. Additionally, there are some safety concerns of which to be aware.
“These are so flammable, so I like to infuse them with a bit of fire retardant. It may not be the best thing in conservation, but it keeps them from being flash-paper,” Lawler said.
The restoration of the drops is the second phase of the Masonic Theater restoration, which began with the addition of new seating, new flooring, and a new electronic control board, among other renovations. The $1.8-million project is leading to a spring opening for the theater, when events including weddings, theater performances and music festivals fill the space.
The restoration of a historical building is a big deal, Lawler said, and having 13 of the original drops available for use and viewing will be something to behold.
“These things are few and far between, and this is something the city should be proud of,“ Lawler said. “It’s going to be quite the space when all is said and done.”
The restoration process will be shown during an open house on Wednesday, January 9, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the second floor of the Masonic Temple Theatre. Several drops will be available for viewing. For more information, email Winona Art and Culture Coordinator Lee Gundersheimer at firstname.lastname@example.org.