St. Joseph of the Palisades Church in West New York underwent an extensive rehabilitation in preparation for its 150 year anniversary in March. The makeover included new floors, restored stained glass windows, new lighting, refurbished pews, and a warmer, more attractive color scheme. Father Gregory Studerus’s wish list also called for refurbishing the crucifixion mural behind the sanctuary. Damaged in a fire in the 1980s, it was retouched at the time with less-than-satisfactory results.
Now the time has come to rectify that problem.
“What happened is, the original dome got water-damaged,” said Union City-based artist Steven Peabody, who was hired to bring the mural back to its original splendor. “So they cut out the figures and then another artist repainted the whole background. He didn’t include the landscape from the original one, or the city, and the sky was totally different.”
The repainted mural depicted a stark mound with little background and a drab sky. Peabody’s task was to repaint the background in a manner similar to the original.
Perhaps the only saving grace of the post-fire restoration project was that the original figures were retained, if re-colored.
The crucifixion figures are actually canvas cutouts pasted to the wall. “That was a typical thing in these churches,” said Studerus, explaining that the figures were probably purchased from a supplier. “You could go to a catalog and say I would like a crucifixion and I would like these figures. They’re hand-painted but according to a schema. Much like the stained glass windows. Every one of these windows is handmade. But they’re all from catalogs.”
“So you’d see the same paintings,” he continued. “As a matter of fact I was alarmed to see in my home church there was an image something like this, very theologically designed with the father, son, the holy spirit in a half-dome like that. Same thing as in Newark. Exact same thing. And it’s a copy of a master’s work in the Renaissance. I’m sure it’s still hand-painted, but they’re copies.”
That gave Peabody a template to work from. “I’m going to pump up all the colors on the clothing,” he said toward the end of his two-week restoration project. “Like the women’s dresses are bright blue, and the woman under the cross has got flaming red hair, and the cross is going to be colored more wood tone. I’m going to add a lot of embellishment on the figures and their eyes and faces. Basically I’m repainting it all.”
To touch up the figures he used acrylic with brushes. For the background he used airbrushes to create the buildings and drifting clouds.
“There was nothing in here,” he said of the background. “It just went into sky. [Father Studerus] wanted a city in back of it. This is all airbrush because I wanted it to be soft-focus. Airbrush automatically gets diffused and fades back.”
Originally hired just to paint lettering around the church during the restoration, Peabody was given a photograph of the original mural and offered a chance to sketch his vision of how it should be restored. Based on that sketch and his portfolio, he got the gig.
“I’m classically trained,” he said. “I went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I was taught underpainting and overpainting in the classical method. It’s not just direct color; there’s layers involved with this. That’s what gives it all the depth and brilliance, the color.”
Describing himself as an interior designer who specializes in color and decorative finishes, Peabody typically works on transforming whole rooms, as opposed to murals.
“I’ve always had this feeling for interiors and I like the big picture,” he said. “I like really controlling large amounts of color and seeing what that does. Because a room is just like a canvas. You’re creating an environment and a feeling.”
“I use nature as a model. The ground, the sky, and the horizon line. Peripheral vision is really important in my work,” he continued. “I don’t know if you could say it’s not modern, because the modern seems to be concerned with just what it is. Like a wall is a wall and that’s all it can be. Whereas I like to be in a place where I can imagine things.”
Peabody tends to wrap colors so there’s not a stark break where walls meets ceiling. And he plays with highlights and shading, creating the illusion of interior lighting in a space.
“People are not boxes, we’re all organic,” he said. “And it’s weird that we live in boxes, but it’s a technical thing. It’s going to change soon. It’ll go into triangulation and then they’ll start being able to control curves. Take out all the corners in a room. It’ll be much more sensual.
Sensual is a good word for Peabody’s fine art, which he estimates takes up about 25 percent of his painting time. Working in a variety of media, he uses bold color and the same play of light and shading as in his architectural work.
“I’m interested in light and luminosity,” he said. “I’m trying to create luminous figures.” Told that his paintings have a psychedelic feel, he said, “Everybody asks me if I take drugs. No. But I’m from that era. I’m a baby boomer.”
Peabody is a self-described “visionary artist,” which he defines as “an artist that has uplifting intention. Basically you would qualify in three ways: it’s timeless, it’s spiritual, and it renders light.”
“Intention is a good part,” he added. “It’s not just stream-of-consciousness, like surreal would be. Visionary is more; it has a spiritual connotation to it and it’s uplifting rather than depressing. I mean, you can have visions of all kinds of things. Goya had visions of all kinds of hellish things and he was a visionary. But that’s on the dark side. I’m on the light side. And color is a big aspect of it, the emotional quality.”
Steven Peabody’s artwork can be viewed on his website at www.stevenpeabody.com.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.