ST. IGNATIUS — As a beautifully restored portrait of Chief Kootenai Koostata was revealed by curator Joe Abbrescia Thursday afternoon at the Three Chiefs Cultural Center outside St. Ignatius, a collective gasp could be heard from the gathered crowd .
The oil painting, which was damaged in the September 2020 arson attack at the Confederate Salish and Kootenai People’s Center in Pablo, looked like new, with a beautiful new frame. It has been over a year since the fire and nine months since the paint restoration process began.
“It’s an honor for me to be able to do this, to be a guy who can save them and give them new life…it’s someone’s legacy as an artist,” Abbrescia said Thursday. .
Much was taken and damaged on that dark day in September, but the resilience of the community and the tremendous individual efforts of program director Marie Torosian, and several others, helped bring some pieces back to life.
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Eight paintings from the fire were restored and returned to tribes on Thursday, including several large ones that hung in the People’s Center rotunda. More than a dozen other parts could not be restored.
“All the years we’ve had students and schools and groups they’ve been part of us and they’ve been part of us through the fire too and through the loss and the devastation and the healing too they’ve been there for us,” Torosian said.
Some of the paintings will likely hang at the Tri-Chief Cultural Center in St. Ignatius, Torosian said. The People’s Center building was badly damaged by the fire and is currently unusable.
The restoration continues on the beading as well as on the paper and the photographic negatives. A Colorado specialist is currently working on document and photo restoration.
A drum and other artifacts were also cleaned, albeit slowly – a museum conservator noted that saliva had been used to clean a drum, and at times the cleaning of the beads was bead by bead.
“Everything comes with a story that relates to who made them and who wore them and who wore them before and now they have this story about how they survived the fire,” Torosian said.
Abbrescia, who has worked full time in art restoration for over two decades, lives and works in Kalispell and gave a detailed explanation of the process used to restore damaged paintings. Paintings are first tested along the edges to see if they can be restored – sometimes there isn’t much a restorer can do that won’t further damage the painting.
The process of restoring the paintings was complex and time-consuming. Abbrescia uses a wand with a cotton ball on the end to slowly clean the paintings, sometimes only doing one square centimeter at a time.
The paints also had to be stored in a specific way and ventilated to eliminate the smell of smoke and soot. New brackets were installed on all restored parts.
Insurance money and grants helped pay for the restoration, Torosian said. Abbrescia stressed that paint restoration is not for amateurs and parts could be damaged forever if careful and expert care is not used.
“If I can keep something from going in the trash, that means a lot,” Abbrescia said.
Community support for the museum and the restoration process has been significant. Torosian said on the day of the fire and immediately after, hundreds of community members came out and volunteered.
At one point, locals lined up at the People’s Center passing artifacts to each other through the door. Work is still underway to catalog everything that may have been both saved and lost in the fire.
“I can’t begin to say thank you enough to everyone,” Torosian said.
Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for Missoulian. Shout out to him on Twitter @jordyhansen or email him at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com