The ancient painting technique of Buon fresco can be found all over Italy, most famously on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The ground-pigment-on-wet-plaster technique experienced its heyday during the Renaissance but has since been mostly lost to time, practiced today by only a handful of master artists.
Buon fresco may soon be revived in a most unexpected place: Schenectady.
A Troy artist and entrepreneur who brought her fresco revival to a historic Cohoes church earlier this year now has her sights set on the Electric City. Sandra Vardine has signed a contract to purchase the former St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Eastern Avenue for $60,000. She will go before the city Planning Commission on Wednesday seeking approval to do just what she did in Cohoes — repair, renovate and restore the historic structure for use as a museum, art school and event venue.
“We wanted to start somewhere,” said Vardine, who recently received nonprofit status for House of Angels Renaissance Projects, the organization that will run the museum/school. “And churches, most of them are historical. But they’re being abandoned left and right. They’re the heart of communities, and the older ones really lend themselves to the structural support that plaster needs.”
St. Mary’s was founded by Polish immigrants in 1892. Nearly 120 years later, the church was one of more than 100 in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany to close as a result of declining enrollment, priest shortages and demographics. It held its final Sunday Mass in June 2009.
Four years later, its gray stone masonry, tall stained glass windows, high arches and gables remain striking in the struggling neighborhood. The property comes with a wood-frame rectory, garage and three-story brick and stone convent.
Vardine expects to close on the property sometime before mid-November. If all goes as planned, she will start renovations in January.
“We don’t believe there’s going to be as many renovations needed at this one,” she said. “The one in Cohoes needed a lot. We’ll mostly be clearing out and removing carpets, redoing the floors. Other than that, anything that will need work can be done over a period of time, whereas in Cohoes, there were issues that needed to be addressed immediately.”
Her interest in frescos was sparked nearly a decade ago when she bought and restored three dilapidated brownstones in Troy’s Washington Park neighborhood. In one of them, she discovered an old fresco. She befriended local fresco artists to see about getting it restored. She couldn’t raise the money to do so, but she’s held on to it ever since, keeping it “gently” covered. A fascination had taken hold.
“We wanted to paint a fresco on a ceiling somewhere, but my question was, then what? How do you make something like this work? How do you make it viable and self-sustaining?”
House of Angels Renaissance Projects has a unique mission. Its goal is to preserve, promote, educate and teach the classical arts, specifically the ancient art form of Buon fresco. The painting technique is environmentally friendly and creates extremely long-lasting paintings. Its downside, and likely the reason it fell out of favor, is that a painting must be done quickly and without mistakes. Painting can only be done while wet, and the plaster takes about 12 hours to dry. So each section of the fresco must be completed in one sitting, and if there is a mistake, there is no painting over. It has to be scraped off and the process started over.
Vardine hopes to bring in fresco artists from Italy and Russia to help “in the creation of cross-cultural angels” on the ceilings and walls of the churches. She already has one master fresco artist on board: Mico Di Arpo lives in Troy as well and owns a fresco studio in Boston.
“She’s one of five master fresco artists in the United States and one of 12 worldwide,” said Vardine. “It’s really become a lost art. It’s something that’s no longer promoted because it’s a very difficult technique. But it’s long-lasting. We live in a time where all of our builders are building little boxes. There’s a loss of creativity. But people want it. People want houses with a little character and creativity. And this is what we’re trying to bring back — creativity and the arts.”
Renovations to the Sacred Heart Church, built in 1890 in Cohoes, are almost complete. Vardine expects to host a soft opening sometime in November to show people what has been done, but the actual school won’t be finished by that time. Once the Cohoes and Schenectady churches are done, she hopes to replicate the project in other locations to make the Capital Region a destination for fresco art.
The art school, Atelier, will teach private classes in the classic arts of Buon fresco, sculpture, plaster, drawing and ceramics. Brass, wood and stone artwork will also be displayed throughout the buildings. The school will be open to the general public and college institutions, but she really hopes to engage underprivileged kids from the local community to participate.
Each church will be open to the public, with the museum available to rent for special events, fundraisers and community functions.
In July, the New York State Education Department Board of Regents approved a five-year provisional charter for House of Angels to operate as a nonprofit corporation for educational purposes. A board of trustees has been formed, consisting of art lovers, artists, accountants, financial and real estate officials from around the Capital Region.
“Every time I turn around, somebody else is interested in participating,” said Vardine. “We’re reaching out to the community, trying to get some afterschool programs and disadvantaged youth to show them a different way. This is everything that I am and have been, coming together in one small little venue.”