UMBARGER, Texas (AP) — During a women's retreat in 2007, Chriss Clifford first set eyes on Umbarger's St. Mary's Catholic Church and its murals, which were painted by Italian men living in a Hereford prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. But since the murals were painted in 1945, they'd seen their share of water damage, the occasional crack, even damage from a fire that struck the church's bell tower in the 1960s.
Clifford, an artist and co-owner of Sorellas Studio in Clarendon, took an interest in preserving and restoring the paintings, a project she and a team of six artists and five interns began in December 2011.
After consulting with a conservator, the team began cleaning the murals and adding a coat of varnish to preserve the original art. Then the restoration began. Workers infilled painting in areas where paint was lost or fading. Since finishing work on the murals, Clifford and a few others have moved their focus to the Stations of the Cross, a series of statues depicting the journey Jesus took to crucifixion.
Part of Clifford's journey with the project has been an exploration of her own faith.
"The spiritual part of it has really made a difference, and I feel each part has been led through prayer, discernment and understanding," she said. "Every time I needed something, it seemed like it was a gift that came out of the sky, like it was the answer to a question."
Clifford said during the project, the crew occasionally played Italian music from the murals' contemporaries, and found other ways to connect with the church's history and have fun.
"We became like a family over here, too," she said. "I rented a house, and a lot of us stayed together in the house, and we had lunch together, spent evenings together and spent a lot of time together on the project."
Artist Patricia DaMilano, who worked on the sanctuary conservation, connected to the project in several ways, having been raised Catholic in Milan, Italy, where she grew up before coming to the United States.
"I wonder what (the POWs) thought when they landed here," she told the Amarillo Globe-News (http://bit.ly/XTVT8m). "There was no art and no history, at least not through architecture, and I know where they came from, and put myself in their place."
Clifford, who is a practicing Catholic, connects the church as an artistic space to the spiritual experience of attending Mass.
"I think all Catholic churches are ... highly decorated to make the person entering the church feel they're closer to heaven and having a heavenly experience, especially when they partake of the Eucharist," she said. "I'd love for everyone who walks through the doors to have that feeling that the Catholic church invokes. The Catholic church is known for its art and beautiful churches, and this is one of the most beautiful churches in the Texas Panhandle. I would encourage people to visit the church, because by visiting the church, we're honoring the artists."
The original artists — nine Italian men captured in Africa and held in a POW camp in Hereford, one of two camps in the Texas Panhandle — transformed St. Mary's from a drab space devoid of decoration into a colorful translation of traditional Catholic symbolism, with murals of "The Annunciation," ''The Visitation," ''The Assumption of Mary" and several angels.
Work continues for Clifford with the Station of the Cross statues, which have suffered sun damage and cracking paint since they were installed in the 1930s. Clifford and her assistants strip the paint from each statue before giving it a coat of shellac, repairing broken parts like fingers and noses, then add a white primer, acrylic paint and glaze.
"One of the things that was important on this project was to research the stories Biblically, so I marked everywhere in the Bible that a story of these statues has occurred, and I also studied a lot of other artworks and found out just the colors you use is important, because they have such significant meaning," Clifford said.
Enrique Mier, a sophomore art student at West Texas A&M University who has been assisting with restoring the statues, said the project has been a great experience that allowed him to meet other artists. But some aspects of restoration have been a departure from the type of art he usually makes.
"On the canvas, you can do what you want," he said. "Here, you follow guidelines."
Clifford recently painted the dome at First Baptist Church of Amarillo, an example of her work as a creative artist.
"With this project, I feel more like a technician, because I'm not trying to create or recreate anything," she said. "I'm really paying homage to something that artists before me did. We're just here as technical people to bring it back to life."
DaMilano thinks the project will contribute to her artistic growth.
"My art is very passionate, expressive and abstract in a way, but you can also identify some images and feelings," she said. "So, doing something tedious in one spot at a time is training for stamina in my art, and I'm going to see how it's going to reflect my art when I return to the studio and work on my next series. I'm fascinated to see what happens there."
Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Amarillo Globe-News.