This article was originally posted by Kane County Connects‘
Kane County History Series
Too silent. Those are words that came to mind for art conservator Scott Sherwood when, a year ago, he stood in a storage room at the Aurora Historical Society and surveyed hundreds of portraits neatly arranged in racks, just waiting to have a purpose in life again.
Once proudly displayed on parlor walls or in company offices, time had passed them by. Families scattered, companies merged or went out of business.
One by one the portraits made their way to the historical society, donated by thoughtful people hoping for the preservation of the history they depicted.
Too silent, he thought, because while some of the pictures are famous, such as two family portraits by the renowned 19th century folk artist Sheldon Peck, others have no claim to fame and their stories have been forgotten.
But Sherwood felt that the gazes of all those individuals were an invitation to enter into generations of life in Aurora. The beliefs, hard work, struggles and triumphs, and even failures that have gone into the building and flourishing of Aurora were all there and deserved retelling.
He proposed an exhibit of portraits that would have opened in May of 2020, but is now on hold until the reopening of the Pierce Art and History Center which is now shuttered because of public health considerations.
“The exhibit is a brilliant idea,” says society Executive Director John Jaros. “It is a new angle on history, and perhaps best of all, some of these pictures have never been on display before. We’re very excited about bringing them out for the public to enjoy.”
When open, the exhibit will contain 50 pieces chosen from the hundreds held at the Tanner House Museum complex.
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed the historical society some extra time to prepare the portraits for display. Sherwood is working to clean and repair the paintings as well as their frames, some of which are unique and beautiful.
Many of the pictures are merely grimy, the result of hanging in buildings where woodburning stoves and coal burning furnaces created indoor pollution for everything from wallpaper and draperies to human lungs. Some have rips and tears, speaking to decades of getting knocked around in attics and garages.
Sherwood says he works with a very light hand, carefully cleaning and patching and making no changes.
But this exhibit called for a most unusual change to a portrait, one he has never encountered in a long career as a conservator. A lovely and colorful portrait of a woman had been placed upside down in its frame.
“With a conventional square or rectangular frame,” he says, “you’d never know or notice. But in this case, the frame has an arched interior opening and for who knows how long the poor lady was balancing for dear life atop this arch.”
Sherwood rectified the situation, which had the additional effect of finally revealing the artist’s signature.
“This was the easiest and most satisfying fix of the whole project,” he says with a smile.
The Pierce Art and History Center is currently closed as are the Tanner House Museum and historical society archives. More information and announcements about reopenings can be found on this website.