La Jolla’s star is reborn
by Kendra Hartmann
Published - 02/29/12 - 04:50 PM | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The mosaic on the west-facing wall of Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church has been undergoing an extensive makeover for six months. Photo by KENDRA HARTMANN
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When Dan Tarnoveanu was awarded the challenge of restoring the exterior mosaic on the west-facing wall of Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in June, he knew it would be a demanding job. The entire mosaic was covered with a layer of soot and dust and had suffered deterioration from the elements, as well as having undergone what Tarnoveanu called “inappropriate past repairs.” Cracks and large gaps between tiles were visible where the tesserae (mosaic tiles) had been hastily arranged in a haphazard manner. Worst of all, the mortar originally used to adhere the tiles to the wall was a pure Portland cement — not the special modified lime mortar traditionally used in Roman and Byzantine mosaics.

Tarnoveanu soon discovered the task would prove more difficult than he had anticipated. Upon closer inspection, he realized the Portland cement, which crumbles over time, had attributed to the deterioration (“The old tiles were crumbling because of the type of cement used and the exposure to the sea air,” he said) and that large portions of the mosaic “puzzle” hadn’t been arranged correctly — meaning the restoration, if it was to be done correctly, would require a lot of attention to minute detail.

“The amount of disintegrated tesserae was almost double than predicted through visual investigation and photo documentation,” he said. “Plus, the gaps between the parts of the mural that were not put together correctly were larger and much more numerous than anticipated.”

The mosaic was erected in 1962, a replica of the original fresco titled “Our Lady, Star of the Sea” by prominent Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez. The mosaic was assembled in Italy and shipped to the U.S. in “puzzle pieces,” to be reassembled on the church’s wall. The assembly would require painstaking attention to detail and tedious placement to assure the tiles were in the correct spot — which, as Tarnoveanu found out, did not exactly happen. When he started work on the mosaic in August, after more than two months of research, he discovered the excessive gaps between tiles — in some places as wide as a half-inch — had been filled in with cement and painted over with an oil-based paint.

Tarnoveanu initially hoped to finish the project in November, but after a few delays, that deadline was pushed back to December. Then, December came and went and the project continued to expand in scope. More gaps were found, more tiles were discovered to be crumbling and issues arose almost daily. After spending six months toiling away both in his studio and on a second-story platform outside the church, Tarnoveanu was able to tear down the scaffolding for the last time in late February.

“There were a lot of challenges we didn’t know about before,” he said. “But just remember, the restoration of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ by Pinin Brambilla Barcillon, which was about two-thirds the size of this work, took 21 years to finish. The restoration process is very complex and can only be done by experts in the field. That’s why I can’t just hire anybody to assist me. Barcillon did the same thing; she decided to do most of the restoration herself.”

Rev. Jim Rafferty, the church’s ninth pastor since its founding in 1906 (the building itself was built in 1937), said he is happy with the rejuvenation of the “Star of the Sea” — Mary’s nautical scriptural title, believed by fisherman to watch over all the people on the sea — but he is also quite pleased to have the project over with.

“Dan very painstakingly did everything he possibly could without taking the thing off the wall and putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “And we’re glad that it’s done. It was inconvenient and messy, and the scope was larger than Dan originally ascertained, but I believe he did as thorough a job as he could.”

The mosaic, which Tarnoveanu estimates to house about 250,000 tiles, should be in line to last quite a while as a result of the restoration.

“The modified lime mortar is better for exterior mosaics because, unlike the Portland cement, it actually gets harder when exposed to water,” he said. “Almost one-eighth of the whole mosaic was damaged, and that was mostly due to water infiltration coming in contact with the cement. In fact, the use of Portland cement is forbidden in Europe in restoration of mosaics and frescoes.”

The other challenge Tarnoveanu faced during his months inhabiting the scaffolding overlooking Girard Avenue was as inevitable as death and taxes: weather. It seemed almost every combination of atmospheric conditions made it more difficult — or impossible — for him to work. The bright sun reflecting off the tiles distorted the colors, forcing him to wait for a cloud to pass so he could correctly match the tesserae, some of which varied only slightly in color (the sun also made the lime mortar dry too fast). Anything more than a light drizzle, of course, made placing the 2-centimeter-by-1-centimeter tiles on the vertical surface precarious. As for illumination, Tarnoveanu said he tried every type of man-made light, but as soon as twilight rolled in, it became impossible to see variations in color and minuscule spaces between tiles. The only conditions that allowed him to work uninterrupted, it seemed, were daylight, dry and overcast.

In the end, though work lasted twice as long as anticipated, though the weather cooperated much less often than not and though the amount of deterioration was determined to be much broader than thought, Tarnoveanu has returned the “Star of the Sea” to beyond her original glory. After administering the finishing touches, Tarnoveanu washed the mosaic with a purifying turpentine, then applied a varnish that will protect against UV rays. And so, finally, Mary is ready once again to watch over and protect fisherman and all others who venture out to sea.
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