Restoration by Heart treats damaged art on paper tenderly

The words “art restorer” provoke visions of dormer-windowed studios, of flaking oil paintings in Rococo frames, of landscapes emerging from beneath layers of ancient grime. It’s startling, then, to enter Gustavo Perez’s workshops — a cluster of modern ranch buildings set among Temecula’s hills — and face the windswept hair and anguished thought balloons of a Roy Lichtenstein comic-art blond.

She looks brilliant now, but she didn’t when she arrived, says Perez, the master craftsman of Restoration by Heart. Wood smoke and coal soot may no longer threaten paintings, but contemporary works on paper often hang in glass houses. In this case, bright light had faded many of the colored dots that Lichtenstein used in his sendups of pop icons.

Matching the shade and intensity of the original exactly meant working microdot by microdot. Perez estimates that he spent two full days on the job. Given that Lichtenstein’s numbered prints sell for tens of thousands of dollars, there was a lot riding on the steadiness of his hand and the accuracy of his eye.

A rolling cart full of paintbrushes in every conceivable diameter stands at one end of the vast central worktable. Colors saved from previous jobs fill bins along one wall. He likes to work to music: Rachmaninoff is waiting on the stereo.

Perez learned his skills in Puebla, Mexico, a city reputed to have as many churches as days in the year, with the oldest dating from the 16th century. Those Baroque and Renaissance structures, full of polychromed wood, gold leaf and incense-glazed paintings, provided a wide-ranging curriculum in the restoration and conservation arts. According to Rod Hewitt, Perez’s business partner in Restoration by Heart , “he can fix everything that isn’t human.”


Paper, though, offers particular challenges. Before the widespread introduction of acid-free stock in the 1980s, works regularly tanned or yellowed as they aged, and not always evenly. Traditional methods of bleaching the paper, Perez explains, involve immersing the work in a chemical bath. The process offers little control and colors may be affected. Aquatints, he says, like those Salvador Dali used, are especially prone to fading. Perez’s method involves blocking out the work’s images to protect them, then using an airbrush to apply a mixture of water-based chemicals very lightly to the surrounding paper.

The line between restoration and re-creation is thin.

“Maybe you can restore the paper,” Perez says, “but if you don’t match the color 100%, you still see the problem.”

Andy Warhol’s fluorescent-colored prints are his biggest challenge.

“When you restore something painted in fluorescents, you have to change it,” he says. The paints are so reflective that adding anything on top of the color automatically darkens it. His collection of Warhol colors may be larger than the artist’s was.

Perez leads the way to an adjoining office whose focal point is a large Chinese cabinet. Many of its drawers are neatly labeled: “felt pads,” “air brushes,” “pen points.” One cupboard, though, is unmarked. He opens it with a flourish to reveal a collection of snack food.

Before-and-after slides on the computer here offer eloquent testimony to the unhappy results of mixing paper with water. Some pieces arrive rippled like a tide flat. Perez’s arsenal includes a vacuum press to straighten the paper. He may also spray a layer of starch on the back as a stiffener.

In other pieces, foxing has occurred. The term refers to the brown or black speckles that result from an interplay of dampness, chemicals in the paper and fungus-like like substances in the air. Perez cleans the discolored areas with his deacidifying chemicals and repaints them if necessary. Even a framed print isn’t safe, he says. Condensation can collect under the glass, especially in hot, humid weather. More damaging, though, are some of the tapes and glues home framers use. These require patient scraping of minute layers of paper.

“Maybe in 50 years I’ll have no more work, because everybody will take care of everything,” Perez says, not very hopefully.

As fascinating as the photos is the story of Perez and Hewitt’s partnership. The pair are visual opposites: Hewitt, a longtime screenwriter, tall and New England gangly; Perez stocky with an impressive air of equanimity. What brought them together? A woman, of course.

When Perez arrived in Los Angeles in 1986, his Mexican descent was not a selling point in the art world. (It’s still not.) As an hourly employee in print shops, he struggled to convince his bosses that the works they had set aside as smudged or out-of-register could in fact be salvaged. Eventually, a gallery owner spotted his flair with top-selling artists such as Warhol and urged him to set out on his own.

Enter Los Angeles painter Ariel Heart. Ill with cancer, she was hoping to expand her restoration business. The two decided to work together, and though she was a disaster as a restorer, Perez recalls fondly, her connections in the art world helped to steer more work their way.

Hewitt, who met Heart during his own serious illness, calls her “a woman who could make coffee nervous” and “a remarkable friend.” He recovered in time to help look after her, and when she died in 2005, he discovered that she had left him the business. He and Perez met for the first time at her funeral.

“I think she knew we would get along,” Hewitt says. If relishing each other’s anecdotes is any test, they do.

The objects of Perez’s skills are not always by world-famous artists. In one room, a poster for the Alien Sex Fiend awaits his attention. It’s a sorry-looking victim. Water has marred the signature of one of the British band’s members, and blotches show where the wet paper stuck to the glass. Turnaround time for a piece usually ranges between four and eight weeks. In this case, Perez has to wait for an insurance adjuster to take pictures of the damage. Only then will he clean off the mold, repair the blotches and gently touch up the signature.

Not all his clients are wealthy or insured. The stained engraving that the owner of a Montana junkyard has sent will cost $450 to restore — “a lot for her,” Hewitt says.

“People treat these things like their babies,” Perez says. “It’s like you go to the doctor with your kid. You go with all your hope.” He smiles. “Here, I am the doctor.”

Comments or story ideas: