Caring for Art

Irek Szelag combines a chemistry master's with a lifelong love of art to restore historic oil paintings.

By Tyler Bierman
Photography by Colin Miller/Strauss Peyton

 

Today Irek Szelag is a thriving local artist and the name in art conservation in St. Louis. He's owned his own business since 1990 and has worked with private owners and museums to make their prized pieces shine; all while somehow finding time to paint hundreds of his own masterpieces.

It all started in Poland with a lifelong passion for fine art. However, Szelag's story took a turn from many artists' journey in 1969 with the first moon landing, an event that inspired him to earn his master's degree in chemistry from the Technical University of Lodz. It was here that he got his first taste for restoring paintings. From there, a combination of his fascination with historic artwork and science led him to the field of art conservation. As he puts it, “I spent a lot of time early in life admiring 17th century Dutch artwork and much more. So, doing what I do gives me the pleasure of being in the presence of all this art that I love and being able to make it my occupation.”

This combination of art skills and chemistry knowledge are invaluable to the restoration process. Parts of this process will vary from piece to piece, but Szelag always begins by carefully examining and documenting the front and back of the painting. Then he will run a series of tests to determine which types of solvents he can safely use for the cleaning, which removes dust and smoke. He will then remove the varnish layer.

Next, Szelag will make any necessary repairs. This includes patching the painting, adding new varnish and doing any touch-ups to the paint layer. This is the tricky part because the oil paints today simply won't work. Due to this, Szelag must specially prepare his paints to match the color pigments of the piece. The final touch is to add a final layer of varnish and return it to its frame.

When it's all said and done, Szelag can turn an $800 painting into a $45,000 treasure, but good luck getting yourself to sell it! After you see the results, you'll opt to keep it for yourself.

As simple as that process may seem, making a 300-year-old oil painting look like it was finished yesterday is no easy task. Even the slightest mix-up with solvents could irreversibly damage a priceless piece. For this reason, Szelag urges people against trying to do this themselves.

 When Szelag isn't preserving art, you can most likely find him creating it. He paints horses, flowers and—most prominently—landscapes of St. Louis, the city that has been his home since 1988. He beams with pride when he says, “I feel that I am a happy man and that I have found the place where I enjoy the work and the hobby together.”

Szelag offers some food for thought, imploring us to “Please care for art. Many people these days are only focused on objects that have no value.” He gestures towards a smartphone, “This is nothing, just a tool for you. You use it to make your work easier, but it's just a thing. Art has greater value. The value comes from the culture, the stories and the countless ways it has impacted people's lives.”

Whether you're looking to see more of his craft or have some of your own treasures restored, you can find all you need at szelagart.com. Also, watch for his next exhibition starting this April at Chesterfield City Hall.