The owner of Eastlake Framing in Bend finds her true passion in bringing works of art back to life. Written by Kim Cooper Findling
When Deb Spicer was a little girl growing up in Eugene, she and her twin sister liked to play the game of art gallery. Deborah and Annalea would spend a day creating works of art, and then display them for sale in a room of their house. One sister would act as the store owner and art seller, and the other the interested art buyer and collector.
“Those were the early days of both my passion for art and my entrepreneurial spirit,” said Spicer, who today owns Eastlake Framing in Bend, where she specializes as an art restorer.
True to those early childhood inclinations, art and business became the dual defining factors in Spicer’s career trajectory. At the age of 22, she became a business owner, opening a photo processing shop in Wagner Mall in Bend. The era was the early 1990s; digital photography was a technology of the future and photographers both pro and amateur had to mostly just accept the images they’d captured on film.
But Spicer, a self-admitted perfectionist, wasn’t content to take the prints she made as final. “I became interested in photo retouching,” she said. She traveled to Florida to study the practice, and soon had earned photo-retouching accounts all over the country. “I spent my days air-brushing out power lines in the sky or touching up negatives of pimply kids,” she recalled with a laugh.
Spicer ran that shop, which she called Sudden Developments, for a decade. When photography went digital, she changed directions and opened an art framing business. But the detail- driven love of hunching over an image and making it perfect lingered in her blood. Soon, she found herself a student once more, this time in oil painting restoration.
Art restoration has been around as long as art has needed restoring. In the United States today, conservators earn their chops via a master’s degree, on the job training or both. Many go to work for big museums or institutions. Spicer wasn’t interested in upending her life or moving to an urban area, so she dove straight into practical learning. “I traveled to California and apprenticed in the restoration of frames and old paintings with an elderly woman who was an expert restorer,” said Spicer.
Spicer spent a few months as an apprentice, feeling that she’d found her true calling. “Even as a child, I would get so upset when an old building was torn down,” she said. “I’m passionate about saving old things, no matter what they are. Learning restoration felt very natural and normal to me.”
Today, Eastlake Framing remains Spicer’s bread and butter, but her side gig as an art restorer is her passion. “I just love it,” she said. “Working on client’s family heirlooms, seeing a painting come to life, getting things just right—it’s very personal, and very fulfilling.”
Back to Life
Art restoration is a little bit science, a little bit magic. For the would-be restorer, artistic talent is a valuable asset, but equally helpful are understandings of chemistry, history and even anthropology. So is openness to risk and the unknown. Each piece arrives on Spicer’s table with a dose of mystery. “I never know quite what I’m getting into,” she said.
First of all, Spicer must attempt to determine what has happened to the painting since it was created. Most of the artworks are old, and have been moved around and stored who-knows-where over decades. “The life list of what a piece was exposed to can be lengthy,” said Spicer. Cigarette smoke is a big culprit, but oil, dirt, dust, heat, cold, humidity, insects and sunlight can damage art, too.
Wearing a ventilator and rubber gloves, Spicer sets to work on each restoration using Q-tips and a cache of twenty chemicals. She begins by testing the very edge of the painting, delicately: “I try to figure out what I need. It’s a very meticulous, slow and careful process.”
The next mystery is the task of figuring out what sort of paints are on the canvas. Usually there is a varnish to remove, and then a series of tests to determine the paint composition. “I never know,” said Spicer. “It depends on what the artist had on hand, the time period of the painting, the region in which it was created.” Each layer signifies a detail the painting’s owners—let alone Spicer—may not have.
Once she’s determined the nature of the paint, Spicer can begin the painstaking process of matching colors and touching up damage. Finally, a layer of varnish protects the restoration work.
Spicer works on art restoration from her home studio instead of from the framing shop. At home, a huge picture window offers natural light, and she’s less likely to be interrupted. “It’s a very cautious process that requires utter concentration,” she explained.
Despite the focus required, and the fact that Spicer restores art in addition to her many hours working at the framing gallery, it’s common for her to dive into a piece first thing in the morning and work all day. She becomes completely engulfed in the process and often loses track of time. “I’m a perfectionist,” she laughed. “This satisfies some weird need in me.”
The Human Connection
The process of art restoration suits Spicer’s temperament, but the relationships she builds with clients are just as rewarding. Works of art come to Spicer by word of mouth, as she doesn’t do any advertising.
“You never know what will wander in the door,” she said. “I take whatever falls in my lap.”
Spicer estimates that she restores about fifty pieces a year and, as far as she knows, she’s the only person doing art restoration in Central Oregon. Her rates depend on how much time she will spend, and vary from as little as $50 for a simple repair to more than $1,000 for complicated fixes on larger works.
The works themselves are typically not valuable in the financial sense, but are usually very meaningful to the owner as sentimental or family-linked possessions. It’s not unusual, Spicer said, for clients to display emotion as they communicate the story of a painting, passing it over the counter and into to her care.
“What they ask me to do, working on objects with such sentimental value, it means a lot to me that they trust me,” said Spicer, adding that she herself is a “big mushball” about saving family heirlooms. “When we reconnect later—when they see the finished product—I get to see the joy, excitement, amazement and appreciation in their eyes. It’s very rewarding.”
Vickee Schons is one person who has passed a family heirloom across the counter to Spicer. When Schons’ mother-in-law passed away, she inherited a painting that had been made by her mother- in-law’s uncle. “It is a classic desert scene, a beautiful painting,” said Schons. “It’s not overly sophisticated, but it’s very dear to me.” The painting, she added, was never cared for. “It had years of wear.”
Spicer approached the project carefully and methodically. “Deb worked to get smoke and junk off of the canvas,” said Schons. “She took care and time to work between the branches of the tree, to not compromise softness and not allow the imagery to become smudgy.” The painting now hangs in Schons’ Tetherow condominium. “The differentiation in coloration is amazing,” she said. “My family was so tickled.”
Tom Ryder came into possession of a very large painting, made by his grandmother in the late 1800s, of Rooster Rock in the Columbia River Gorge. “It’s an accurate portrayal of the time before the dams went in on the Columbia,” said Ryder. “You can even see canoes on the water.”
The painting, which Ryder said had been “tucked away in attics here and there over years,” was dirty and the ornate, gold frame had been significantly damaged. Spicer restored the canvas and repaired chunks that had broken out of the frame. “You wouldn’t even know it was a repair,” said Ryder, who gifted the beautifully restored painting to his daughter.
For now, Spicer balances art restoration with her work at Eastlake Framing, but she imagines a “retirement” where restoring works of art for clients is her only gig. “The pace at the framing shop is fast-paced and chaotic,” she said. “We’re always trying to make deadlines.” At home, pouring over an oil painting in the silence of her studio, she finds a break in that pace. “I’m forced to slow down. I love the process, watching artwork come back to life under my touch. It’s very fulfilling.”
This feature also appears in our flagship publication, Cascade Living Magazine.