Whatever you do, don’t compare Ken Katz to a medical doctor.
Yes, Katz, a well-known local art conservator, along with his team at Conservation and Museum Services in Detroit, fixes and restores art and antiques and comes up with treatment plans. Yes, he uses chemicals, formulas, sometimes X-rays to assess and examine a piece. He even wears a lab coat.
But there’s a key difference between what art conservators and medical doctors do, as one of Katz’s instructors once joked. Medical doctors bury their worst mistakes.
“Ours will be on the wall forever so you have to get it right the first time,” Katz says.
Katz and his team of five tend to some of Metro Detroit and Michigan’s most precious artifacts — cleaning off grime, restoring frames and mending tears. They don’t just refurbish these objects — their goal is bring them back to their original state as much as possible.
“They restore family treasures,” says art collector Randy French, who has turned to Katz and his crew many times to fix paintings.
Katz, a conservator for more than 30 years, says what conservators do is “very different” than refinishing a piece of furniture or object.
“If you’re refinishing a set of drawers for your house, you strip everything off and then you recoat it,” says Katz. “... We’re taking everything off except that last layer, the last original layer. It’s very different. We don’t want to give up that last layer so we have to devise ways to get all the way down (but save that original layer). That’s the trick.”
What’s under that last layer in some cases can be breathtaking. In 2000, Katz and his team were hired to do work on the main dining room of the Albert Kahn-designed Detroit Athletic Club after a leak was discovered in the ceiling. Peeling off flecks of paint, Katz suspected there was more under the surface.
“There was documentation that there were paintings there,” Katz says.
It took some work, but eventually the DAC agreed to let Katz try to uncover paintings on the ceiling. Using a technique called strappo to remove at least three layers of old paint, they covered the entire 80-by-40 ceiling with fabric that they glued up with Elmer’s Glue.
“And then we pulled it off. As we pulled it, everything came off,” revealing beautiful paintings by Scottish decorative painter A. Duncan Carse, says Katz.
“If this didn’t work, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. It had to work. And it worked,” Katz says.
Growing up, Katz, a New York native, wasn’t especially artistic. His great-grandfather was a scribe and one aunt was an art teacher.
Katz, on the other hand, was analytical and liked science. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art history, he got a master’s degree in the conservation of historic and artistic works from the State University College of New York, Cooperstown Graduate School.
“I just fell into this,” he says.
He spent five years as a conservator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, from the mid 1980s to 1990, before branching out on his own.
Today, Katz and his team quietly work their magic in a small, nondescript building south of Grand River and east of Michigan Avenue. They specialize in restoring paintings, but also painted furniture, ceramics, sculptures and a broad range of architectural surfaces.
Renata Palubinskas, a conservator who has been working with Katz for more than 20 years, specializes in decorative objects, including ceramics and sculptures. Her job is not only labor intensive, but incredibly detail-oriented. Putting together a French painted sculpture last fall took her more than 40 hours.
“If an object has something missing, I have to re-create it in the same way it was originally,” says Palubinskas.
Katz says each job starts with an initial assessment, which takes about an hour. He looks for past restorations, structural insecurities or disfigurement. Disfigurement is changes in the appearance of a painting that don’t have a long-term effect, as opposed to damage.
“If a painting is damaged, it’s damaged. I can fix it. But it’s already done,” says Katz. “Disfigurement — dirt and grime — doesn’t have a permanent impact.”
Katz recently examined an oil on canvas painting of a woman, likely from the 1820s or 1830s. Propped on an easel with a bright light perched above, he used a long, delicate brush to test the surface. After cleaning a small area of the subject’s face, the difference was immediately noticeable.
“You can see how dirty it is,” Katz says. “We’ll clean it and assess its condition and come up with a recommendation.”
To determine the right cleaning approach, Katz and his team will carefully test a small area. Some conservators even do X-rays of paintings, which will show damage. One common cleaning agent for paintings: good, old-fashioned saliva.
“Saliva has enzymes in it, neutral pH, and it affects grimes,” Katz explains. “It breaks it down.”
The Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society hired Katz’s team in the 1990s to restores the frames of paintings of old justices. The gold-leafed frames had been painted over with spray paint. They’ve also restored the frames of some paintings in the state Capitol.
Not all art can be saved. Those damaged by fire and extreme moisture are sometimes beyond repair. Sometimes a previous restoration done poorly can leave irreparable damage.
St. Matthew Catholic Church at Harper and Whittier called Katz years ago after a steam pipe broke, turning a mosaic on stone in one of its domes a white color.
“We got there and sure enough what had happened in the 1950s or 60s someone had restored it,” says Katz, whose team was able to restore the mosaic. They’d “put a polyurethane varnish along the back half near the bottom. Polyurethane is usually impossible to remove.”
The art of art conservation isn’t cheap. Prices can range from $500 to treat a painting — it depends on the size and condition —to $3,000 to restore an antique frame.
Chuck and Judy Mathews of Grosse Pointe Farms turned to Katz late last fall after Chuck inherited a painting of the Grand Canyon by artist John Hilton from his sister. “He’s my expert to tell me what needs to be done,” says Judy Matthews. Katz said the painting was in pristine condition but the frame needed to be cleaned.
For Metro Detroit art lovers and collectors, Katz has some simple advice for keeping art in good shape: try to keep humidity consistent — 40 percent in the winter, 60 percent in the summer; keep art away from the direct sun; and don’t try cleaning paintings on your own.
“Don’t touch it,” he says.