People’s Center fire damaged paintings restored and returned to Three Chiefs Culture Center
ST. IGNATIUS — The 2020 Labor Day weekend arson caused fire sucked the oxygen out of the air to feed its dancing flame frenzy that destroyed the People’s Center and much of its contents. Thankfully many of the artworks and art-crafts survived the fire but with severe heat, soot, water and smoke damage. Also surviving the fire were hopes for restoration of the damaged goods.
“Once the fire was out and the fire marshal said it was safe to go in, we went right in,” said Three Chiefs Culture Center Director Marie Torosian who was the People’s Center director at the time of the fire. Much like a water bucket fire line the damaged pieces were passed out of the People’s Center building. “Our first goal was to get everything out to dry. Everything that was on display in the museum was brought out.”
The damaging fire fueled collateral damage throughout the Flathead Reservation that elicited feelings of sorrow for the loss of irreplaceable historic and traditional touchstone artifacts. The loss was heavily felt among the Indian community especially the staff of the People’s Center for whom their daily presence and connection to the People’s Center was a near umbilical. Tears couldn’t be snuffed out and the loss left them gasping for answers to the whys.
Thankfully, time can be the shoulder to lean on as you walk the path to recovery. That path for the People’s Center staff led to St. Ignatius where the People’s Center was reincarnated as Three Chiefs Culture Center, Museum and Gift Shop located at the Allard Stage Stop along Highway 93.
Last week eight of the damaged but now restored paintings including some that hung high in the People’s Center entry rotunda completed a longer journey on their path to restoration to once again be publicly displayed at Three Chiefs Culture Center.
The paintings were meticulously restored over a nine-month period by conservator Joe Abbrescia of Kalispell. Many paintings sent to Abbrescia, however were damaged beyond being salvageable.
“The biggest challenge was too much heat,” he said. “We couldn’t restore nine pieces because the heat destroyed the paint layers.”
For Three Chiefs Culture Center Director Marie Torosian seeing the restored artworks, especially those that hung in the People’s Center rotunda was completion of the last stitch in a circle.
She said the tribal artworks and art-crafts elicited more than the surface that catches the eyes’ first glance.
“Everything comes with a story that connects to who made them, who wore them, who held them before, and… they’ve got a story how they survived the fire and came home again,” she said.
The 57-year-old Abbrescia, who began restoration of art works in 1995, explained the tedious but rewarding process of the restoration of the damaged paintings. Many things factor in the restoration process besides heat damage; there is pre-fire ultraviolet light damage, smoke damage, soot that can bake into the painting surface, and water damage related to putting the fire out.
The paintings had to be aired out for four months to reduce the smoke smell. Restoration has to address each of the varying damage factors and combinations differently, with various dry or liquid cleaning chemicals applicable to each damage factor and/or combinations of. Where paintings are displayed is critical to their longevity as are temperature, humidity and light exposure.
“This was a great challenge. Fire damaged restoration is always a challenge. You have to be really conscientious of what you’re doing,” Abbrescia said, adding that three people worked on the nine-month project. “I hope to someday see them on display on these walls. It’s been an honor to do this, to be the guy that can save them and give them a new life. It means a lot to save an artist’s work. This is their legacy.”
In a reflective mood Torosian reached deep to express her thankfulness to Abbrescia, and the joy she feels with the restored artworks under the roof of the Three Chiefs Culture Center.
“Every day I walk to work or walked into the office at work, there they were hanging in that rotunda, beautiful rotunda, and you just look at them every day and it just became a piece of everyday life for us at work. Then to know that they were damaged in the fire or they were lost,” Torosian said. “And then Joe’s work and expertise put into them and bringing them back to life, it just makes us happy… glad to see them come home again and they’ll be able to be seen by everybody and shared by their families, you know, be able to come in here and see them again.”
The paintings are back. The paintings will tell their story. The story will be heard. The story will be felt. The story will be passed on. The story will continue. The circle is mended.