Restoring a 'Lost' Artwork
First, Saving Hands and Feet
One of my most unusual - and interesting - projects involves a large swimming pool in the back yard of our Ambassador's residence in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. On the bottom of the pool is a large work of art made of tile.
Created by the Picasso of the Philippines, Vicente Silva Manansala (1910-1981), in 1965 when the pool was constructed, Manansala is now considered a national treasure. Although he is famous in the Philippines, this artwork is nowhere to be found in offical lists of his art. No one seems to know it exists except our embassy and the US State Department's Office of Cultural Heritage which asked me for help.
Part of the problem is that there is no complete image of this work of art because it is so large. It needs an overhead photo from a drone which I'll arrange in a future visit. Below are other works by Manansala.
The Initial Work
The first step in this multi-year project was to eliminate a safety concern. When the artwork was created, the tiles were cut and installed but never 'softened', resulting in sharp edges that occasionally caused minor lacerations to feet and hands.
With the help of the embassy mason, Delmer, we carefully used a grinder on the edges of more than 1000 tiles over three days. I really couldn't have done it without Delmer as it was mid-summer and very hot even in the shade. I did ten minutes at a time. Delmer in his special hat that completely covered his neck, did a half hour at a time. As a small token of my appreciation I gave him my beloved grinding tool.
Back to Manila
That done, it was on to the next problem. Over time, some tiles - about 90 - deteriorated and were replaced without matching the original colors or shapes. Who could blame anyone when so few knew this was a valuable artwork.
Notice in the photo the tiles with red dots. Luckily, the replacement tile is all one distinct gray color, so it's easy to spot replacements. The original shapes were not as easy to determine - I had to study the artist's previous artwork with similar elements to figure this out with certainty.
The Director of the Office of Cultural Heritage decided to not only restore this important and unusual artwork, but also track down relatives, cultural officials, editors of art publications, and museum directors to plan a special dedication when the restoration is finished. After all, an unusual, important, valuable, and 'lost' work of art by a renown Filipino artist deserves special attention.
I was selected to lead this effort and spent many months researching this piece to precisely determine the original shapes and colors. That completed, I located a handmade tile manufacturer in Lisbon, Portugal willing and able to match the colors in small batches. That company, Viuva Lamego, completed the order and shipped the tile to Manila where it awaits my return.
I'll bring special tools to cut curves in tile. The lack of these tools may have been the reason the original tile shapes were not previously matched. I plan to show the mason how to use this equipment and then leave it so that he can do future replacements without help.
I'll also bring twenty tiles fabricated here in the US to embed in the concrete walkway surrounding the pool. This is a label indicating for visitors a bit about the artist.
Special thanks to Gloria Shanstrom at Enduring Images for the tile fabrication, and to Casper Talaeay from Lancaster, PA for the Filipino translation. I learned from Casper that there are many dialects in the Philippines. The major one is Tagalog seen here.
- Art Restoration in Istanbul
- Conservation of the Buddha
- Sculpture Installation in Athens
- Ceramic Restoration
As I mentioned, the artwork is so large that no photo exists showing the entire piece. During my upcoming final trip I'll find a photographer to take drone overhead photos. This photo shows only half of the piece! You can just make out the cubist sea creatures and Delmer in the background.
I located two granddaughters of the artist. One is an expert on her grandfather's artwork. I continue to follow leads and hope to locate many more interested parties.
Now that a break in the COVID-19 pandemic allows me to travel again, plans are afoot to return in early January of 2022. It's a bit more complicated this time around with more costly airfare, a ten-day quarantine, and a Philippine visa which I can only get by applying in-person at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC. Thankfully, my team at the Office of Cultural Heritage is covering all expenses.
I'll be back in touch when the project is completed.
Below are images of the artist.