Artists Among Us
In Southport, formerly New York-based artists Lisa and John Strazza perform the incredible work art restoration.
As a young child, Diane Kuebert often wondered why her mother had so many dark and dirty oil paintings hanging on the walls of their home on Long Island, New York. Now she knows. Those paintings were done by famous 19th-century American landscape painter Charles Day Hunt, and they had been in Kuebert’s family for generations.
After her mother passed away last year, Kuebert inherited all of her possessions, many of which were packed up in boxes, and she had stored them away. During the COVID-19 stay-at-home mandate in the spring, she finally had the time to unpack the boxes and uncover the family treasurers. And there were the dark and dirty paintings she had remembered from so long ago.
Kuebert knew that their true beauty was obscured after years of collecting dust and cigarette smoke, so she went down to Ricky Evans Gallery in Southport and asked an artist at work there if she could recommend someone to restore the paintings. Lisa Strazza answered, “Yes, that would be me.” Kuebert commissioned Strazza Art Restoration to restore the once-beautiful paintings and gilded frames to their original glory — and what a difference that made!
The bright and clean paintings now hang in Kuebert’s home, each with its own story bringing back memories from a time so long ago. Her favorite is the one with the gentle shoreline and the ships far out at sea, signed and dated 1877. Kuebert says she couldn’t even see the ship on the left or the highlights in the sky until Strazza restored it. The little painting with the hens is painted on wood instead of canvas, and the hens were barely recognizable pre-restoration. Thanks to a clear varnish that Strazza put on all of the paintings, they will look just as lovely decades from now.
In addition to being an amazing artist whose work is in corporate collections and fine galleries all over the world, Strazza has been in the business of restoring paintings for most of her adult life. She first worked for a company in Edison, New Jersey, that specializes in historical building and church renovations. She has helped restore works in such landmark churches as St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and Holy Cross Church in New York City.
Strazza’s husband, John, is a talented photographer whose work is also in galleries and private collections all over the world. He is widely known for his street scenes of New York. And he, too, is in the restoration business, restoring damaged photographs to their original state.
What brought these two artists from the competitive New York/New Jersey area to Southport? Pretty much the same thing that brought most of the rest of us here — they were tired of the Northeast rat race and the cold, snowy winters. But their story is a little more dramatic than most.
One summer day in 2016, the Strazzas gave their landlord notice that they were leaving, closed their gallery in Warwick, New York, bought a new Ford Focus and headed south, not having any idea where they would end up. Savannah was nice but too far from their children, all of whom live in the New York/New Jersey area; Charleston was lovely, but not quite right either. Wilmington was too crowded, has too many cars and reminded them of where they just left. Finally, someone suggested Southport, and they immediately fell in love with the peaceful, picturesque town they call “Cape Cod in the South.”
While a lovely place to live, a “peaceful, picturesque town” does not lend itself to the bustling street-scene photography that John is so good at, so he had to give that up. But starting over is nothing new to him. He began his adult life as a musician, singing, writing songs and playing the guitar. Then he became a pastor. And somewhere along the line, he became a photographer. He is now the one who takes pictures of artists’ original works so Ricky Evans can make prints from them. He also restores old photographs. But he will tell you that his main job is to encourage and support his wife because he sees such great talent in her work, and he consistently stretches her to reach her personal best. He makes her stay true to her original vision and won’t let her insert something more in the painting just because it might be more commercially appealing. In his words, “I offer expensive editing.”
Strazza, too, has changed her focus. Up until around 2014, she was painting mostly abstracts, but later changed her focus to impressionism and painted scenes of the Hudson Valley. Now she paints what she calls “Southern Impressions.”
“She doesn’t paint things,” John says, “she paints feelings.”
The one consistent theme throughout their careers has been their art restorations. And being the spiritually based people that they both are, the joy that each restoration gives its owner means everything to them. “We’re giving people back their memories in good shape,” Strazza says.
Hearing Strazza describe the process gives one a real appreciation for the difficulty in restoring a painting. If the painting is on canvas, she will take off the backing and work from the back. This usually means that she can clean the painting without having to retouch it, a very time-consuming, painstaking process. However, if the painting is on wood, she has to work from the front side, and that is more difficult. She also cleans and restores the frames and occasionally has to replace a piece of it, which she does by making an identical plaster piece. She mostly works on oil paintings; however, she has restored some acrylics as well.
As if painting and restoring paintings weren’t enough to keep Strazza busy, she also works at Ricky Evans Gallery in Southport a couple of days a week, framing pictures and consulting with customers.
Restore Your Art
Strazza Art Restoration: strazzagallery.com
211 N. Howe Street in Southport