Art conservator Eva Matysek

Art conservator Eva Matysek in Poland, restoring murals

The rejuvenating touch

Eva Matysek breathes new life into old or damaged art

by Bondo Wyszpolski

In 1929, two years after he’d designed the murals for Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, John Gabriel Beckman was commissioned by William Wrigley, Jr., to create the murals for the Avalon Theatre inside the Catalina Casino. The auditorium is spacious; it was built to accommodate nearly 1,200 patrons. In 1994, as part of an extensive restoration, which included reupholstering the seats, arts conservator Eva Matysek was hired to clean and restore the murals to their original condition. It took the Walteria resident a full year to complete the project.

Art conservator Eva Matysek. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“That was the biggest job that I’ve done,” Matysek says. It was an enormous task, with a scaffold having to be built for her. Visually, if you can imagine Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, then you can picture Matysek high in the air, all but hidden in the upper shadows of the interior.

The primary challenge, however, wasn’t the scale of the work, but the fact that the murals weren’t painted on wood or plaster or even ordinary canvas, but rather on heavy burlap (attached to large, curved ribs) with holes in the fabric to allow sound to pass through. In meeting that challenge originally, Beckman and his assistants did not employ the usual pigments and fixatives. Over time, these dried or evaporated, not to mention the accumulation of dust, perhaps as much as 65 years worth embedded in the burlap. In short, and we’re skipping over a laundry list of details, Matysek’s involvement may have been time-consuming, but it brought the murals of the Avalon Theatre back to their original splendor.

Fated for a life in art

Eva Matysek working in the Avalon Casino Theatre

Eva Matysek was born and raised in Warsaw, but emigrated from Poland in the early 1980s, while it was still under Communist rule. Like most people, she says, she left the country in order to have a different life. “If I knew it would change I probably wouldn’t have left Poland. But we didn’t know; we couldn’t have foreseen that.”

The Warsaw of Matysek’s youth was still recovering from the extensive damage it suffered during World War Two. Ruined structures from decades earlier (85 percent of the historic inner city had been destroyed) were prevalent. Did coming of age in this environment contribute towards shaping Matysek’s worldview and artistic sensibility?

“In my case,” she replies, “it was very easy, because my father was a director of a museum in Warsaw. And his brother, my uncle, was a sculptor and a conservator. He lived in Gdansk and worked in conservation for rebuilding the buildings that were destroyed during the Second World War. As a child I would go for vacations and stay with them, and he would always show me his work, his gildings, his conservation. I loved what he was showing me. So I think there was no other possibility for me but to be an artist.” Furthermore, “At my father’s parties there were always professors of art or painters and sculptors, and that’s just how I grew up. It was just my environment.”

So you knew from the beginning that you wanted to be an artist?

“Right away. I was sculpting as a child.”

Matysek eventually went on to earn her Master’s degree in Art Conservation from the Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw, in addition to perfecting her own abilities in both painting and sculpture, in particular wooden sculpture with polychromy and gilding.

Eva Matysek: The conservator at work, on a painting by William Wendt. Photo courtesy of the artist

The result of her schooling is that “I can paint any style, anything from the 10th Century up to now. Part of my training was that we had to copy in a museum, in person, every period of art.” Essentially, every artistic discipline covered by the last millennium, and then some.

We’re not just talking about the application of paint and fixatives or the variety of brushstrokes, but the technology — how the work is constructed, the various layers and the range of materials that may have gone into it. That’s just the basic knowledge a conservator needs to know (and, incidentally, alerts them to the possibility that a work is a forgery… a piece being passed off for what it isn’t).

Here’s one that’s been restored

As with many artists who excel in one discipline, Matysek has been drawn to other creative forms of expression. “I had a lot of interest in theater as well,” she says, meaning both on and off stage, and was involved in Warsaw’s jazz and poetry scene. Despite Communism, “It was wonderful because all those poets from other countries would come and read their poetry. I speak Russian, and poetry in Russian is amazing.

“So I was always with art. I never did anything else, other than hiking. And music was a big part of my life, too.”

What kind of music?

“When I paint, I like Bach, because he’s very peaceful; and when I walk I like Beethoven. Then when I walk out of the house I love Delta blues.” She also singles out Smetana (because, really, who doesn’t like “The Moldau”?). “But blues, jazz, Classical, Romantic… It’s always been a part of my life. And I dance Argentinian tango.”

With regard to her own painting, which recalls the French Impressionists, Matysek says, “My paintings are not dark, because I paint the beauty; I paint something that I love, and something that inspires me.” And this seems true: her work does tend to glow with a subdued or even wistful serenity.

I might also add that she has a very impressive bookcase, filled largely with art books, at the top of the stairs in her home.

Apart from her profession as an art conservator, Eva Matysek is an accomplished painter who has shown her work locally as well as in Europe

Hands off that painting!

When Eva Matysek came to the United States she knew that she’d be doing art conservation, and she found a job working for an older man who owned a gallery in Riviera Village. After he retired, Matysek says, “For very little money I was able to take over the business.” That hadn’t been her plan, but she ran The Village Gallery and thus tried to promote artists while continuing her own work in art conservation and restoration.

Matysek also worked for many years as a conservator for Gerald Buck, whose very large collection of mostly California Impressionists was gifted a few years ago after his death to UC Irvine. One of Buck’s mottos was “Buy what you love” — as opposed to buying solely based on the name of the artist. “He had a wonderful collection,” Matysek remembers. “He had everything.”

Art conservator Eva Matysek. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

She flips through a folder with pictures of various paintings, the before (when they were brought to her) and the after (when she’d completed the restoration process). So what is it she repairs?

Apart from rips and tears, sometimes a picture has been overpainted or incompetently touched up, and perhaps with colors that aren’t a perfect match. “You have to respect the original,” Matysek repeats several times, “and then you have to know how to paint and you have to have a color sense because you have to match the color. It’s like any skill…”

After a while, you just know what to do, right?

“Oh, it’s intuitive. I know what colors go into your shirt, and I can match it with my eyes closed. I’m very good with matching colors. It’s actually my strength.”

Matysek turns to an image of a stately woman, the picture originally in such poor condition that she needed to reconstruct the hand. She emphasizes that the conservator is duty-bound to the intention, skills, and techniques of the original artist.

“I get a lot of stuff that’s been damaged by other people. The problem is, you don’t need to have credentials to restore art. You have to have credentials to take out somebody’s liver… So what happens, people, framing stores, restore art, and they say, Oh, it just needs cleaning. But they don’t understand that the cleaning is the most dangerous part, because once you take off the original paint you can’t put it back. You could put it back, but first of all it’s not the artist and then (a job badly done) diminishes the value of the art.”

She shakes her head thinking of all the damaged work that people bring to her. “So that’s a big issue for me,” she says about botched restorations by people with little skill or training. “I love them in the original condition. There can be tears, holes, whatever; just don’t touch it.”

Eva Matysek in 1994 during the mural restoration of the Avalon Theatre in the Catalina Casino. Photo courtesy of the artist

Do you also do art conservation in Poland?

“Sometimes I do,” Matysek replies. “Last summer in Poland I worked on big 17th, 18th century murals.” She’s also completed conservation work in other parts of Europe as well.

The higher reward in what Matysek does is in knowing that, with her restoration, art is being moved forward through time for future generations to enjoy. We can marvel at a picture from several hundred years ago and not realize that but for the devotion and passion of a skilled conservator it might today be dull and dark and all but indecipherable. But now it’s a cultural rejuvenation and a shot in the arm for our edification and mental health. Indeed, as Matysek sees it, “An art conservator is for art sort of like a doctor for the people.”

It’s hard to place a value on a restored painting or sculpture as the joy it brings can resound for years to come. Think about that the next time you’re in a museum.

Eva Matysek Fine Art Restoration, appointments only: (310) 938-7067. ER

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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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