Legacy art returns to CSKT after devastating fire

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Posted at 9:16 PM, Jan 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-21 11:27:36-05

ST. IGNATIUS — Over a year after a devastating fire destroyed the tribal museum, an expert is returning carefully restored legacy artwork saved through extensive work.

When an arson fire ripped through "The People's Center" in September 2020, it wasn't just a tremendous loss, but a tremendous heartbreak, as invaluable regalia and artwork appeared to be lost forever.

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Artwork damaged in a September 2020 arson fire at The People's Center in Pablo.

But this week, thanks to the tremendous skill of Conservator Joe Abbrescia, eight paintings have been brought back to life and returned to the Three Chiefs Cultural Center.

Using a meticulous process of chemical cleaning by hand, the art, some more than dating to 1901, are ready for display once more.

"It varied depending on how much heat a particular piece had," Abbrescia told MTN News Thursday. "Or you know, some of them were actually, like, fell off the wall so you have impact damage to different things."

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One of the paintings where the heat and smoke damaged the paint layer, making it impossible to restore

"But you know, every piece you just take as an individual piece and do what's needed for that particular piece."

In addition to cleaning inch-by-inch, the paintings were also protected with fresh foam core mountings and beautiful frames from a Kalispell shop. With the restoration of the art, a restoration of the tribal story.

"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. And then to know that they were damaged in the fire or they were lost. And then Joe's work and expertise put into them and bringing them back to life, it just makes us happy," Torosian continued. "It's just 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." - Three Chief Cultural Center program director Marie Torosian.

Not every painting could be saved. Abbrescia showed a piece that had too much heat and fire damage right down into the paint layer. But Torosian tells me it will be saved and placed under glass so future visitors will be able to see them as well.

"You know it's an honor for me to be doing this, you know? To be a guy that can save these and give them a new life," Abbrescia reflected. "And then being an artist son. This is somebody's legacy as an artist. So if I can save something from not going in the trash it means a lot."

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Conservator Joe Abbrescia shows one of the paintings that was saved, dating back to 1901

"Everything comes with a story, connects to who made them, who wore them, who held them before, and you know now they've got this story of how they survived the fire and came home again," Torosian noted.

The restored paintings should be on display soon at the Three Chiefs Cultural Center.