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Restoration artist calls on the past to restore for the future

Dan O'Reilly
Restoration artist calls on the past to restore for the future
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When developers, museums and restoration contractors require specialized painting, they often contact decorative painter and restoration artist Lori Le Mare.

The Hamilton resident has been a decorative painter for 27 years, but has placed an increased focus on the restoration side for the past decade.

"Contractors seek me out when they have clients who would like to keep original finishes, but need damaged sections restored."

As example is her restoration of the vestibule doors at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall. During a major and intricate overhaul of the building in the late 1990s, numerous layers of paint were stripped away from the doors. Le Mare was called when the project architect realized the first layer was actually a faux wood grain

"I needed to fill in the areas removed by the strippers to match what was left of the wood grain," says the artist who used Venetian plaster to fill in the marred sections.

Le Mare’s resume dates back to the late 1980s when she and a partner opened Canada’s first school for decorative painting and faux finishing in Toronto. The multi-disciplinary firm also took on commercial and restoration projects and had its own product line.

"We had 15 employees and subcontractors and worked on many large commercial projects such as the Niagara and Windsor casinos."

Many of those projects were featured in television programs and newspaper articles. However, the business arrangement with that partner came to an end and, in 2009, she relocated to Hamilton. Shortly after moving there, she was hired to restore and replicate the city’s Dundurn Castle, a national historic site.

"From there the restoration work really started to blossom," says Le Mare, citing Osgoode Hall and her restoration of the Stations of the Cross statuettes at St. Mary Magdelene Church in Toronto.

Her portfolio also includes the restoration and replication of a 12-metre-long, 0.91-metre-high-metre (40-foot-long, three-foot high) exterior heritage sign at 99 Atlantic Avenue. This early 20th century brick and beam industrial building in Toronto  was modernized and re-purposed into large office-type loft rental space.

Although the sign had to be restored, it also had to be given a slightly aged look in keeping with the building’s historic character. This was achieved by ‘distressing’, a process in which paint, slightly darker than the sign letters, was mixed together and then dry brushed on to the sign, she says.

During the two-year undertaking, Le Mare worked from a four-storey-high scaffold and used propane heaters to keep warm during the winter.

A recent project, and maybe her most complex, was applying highly polished Venetian plaster to approximately 371 square metres (4,000 square feet) of walls and pillars for the recently constructed and opened Ismaili Centre in Toronto.

Over a four-month period, she troweled four layers of different shaded plaster. Then, she used numerous pieces of small grit sandpaper to sand it, and then rubbed the plaster with her trowel.

"Sanding the Venetian plaster doesn’t polish it, but makes the surface incredibly smooth. The smoother it is the higher the polish will be when you burnish it with edge of the trowel.

"I did the job alone and I would say this was a very challenging job, being the only woman with about 200 male subcontractors, while construction is being done at the same time."

Asked about the principle which guides her creations, Le Mare said: "My philosophy is to always do the best that I am capable of no matter what I’m working on. In restoration work, I like to think about the person and the hand that had created the original finish — sometimes 150 years ago. I like to think about who the person was and what their life was like, what they were thinking while they created the same finish that I am now replicating."

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