Jeff Johnson knew he loved to paint.
He went to school for painting with no idea where it would take him. At one point, he even thought about becoming an architect until an internship at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building changed his trajectory.
Johnson moved to Harrisburg in 1987 to intern with Albert Michaels Conservation and never left. He formed his own company, Johnson & Griffiths (J&G), in 2008 and has worked at the Capitol complex ever since.
J&G is a historic preservation company focused on art conservation, restoration and decorative arts. The team’s work ranges from conserving paintings and sculptures to restoring decorative finishes.
“We come into it with an idea of art,” Johnson explained.
Everyone who works for Johnson has some kind of background in art, mostly painting. However, Johnson said that the better way to describe them is “modern-day alchemists.”
Each project starts by finding the essential parts. With a painting, you have to understand what was previously done to it, how moisture and sunlight impacted it, and how to remove any paint on top of the original without damaging what’s underneath, he said.
It’s where science meets art.
“A lot of the projects we do are historic interiors,” Johnson explained. “We go in and take samples and look at them under a microscope. Then we do chemical exposures to expose what the original decoration was.”
Then they have to re-invent what was there before using modern materials. J&G recently finished a project in the Capitol’s North Office Building, which involved restoring decorative woodwork and an upholstered ceiling with 5,000 decorative tacks in a diamond pattern.
The original may have contained lead paint or animal adhesives. The batting glued to the plaster ceiling was made from some kind of animal hair. Johnson still isn’t sure how the designers stuck the upholstered canvas to the ceiling, but he had to find a way to re-invent it.
He found a company in Seattle that makes flame-resistant adhesives for airlines and worked with them to find the right product for his needs. Then he contacted a theater company in Chicago that makes huge drops for productions and operas to find a canvas big enough for the ceiling.
J&G used the cathedral room on the second floor of HMAC to paint the canvas. Because it was so large, they rolled it up and carried it down 3rd Street from HMAC to the Capitol.
“We didn’t really know how it was going to work until it actually worked,” Johnson said.
That’s the fun of it for Johnson. He loves making interiors beautiful again and learning about the materials and new ways of doing things. It’s an ongoing process of learning for the team.
“If we don’t know what materials or what paints were involved or what finishes were involved, we research it, or I call somebody in who’s an expert, and we learn from them,” he said.
Jacintha Clark, who has worked for Johnson for six years, said that she’s constantly learning and developing new methods of doing things. She even took a workshop in Connecticut specifically looking at the cellular anatomy of wood.
Although Clark handles many of the conservation projects for J&G, each one is a different challenge. Whether she’s sculpting out baby Jesus’ fingers or working on tombstones, she’s acutely aware of the materials involved.
“It’s a lot of critical thinking,” Clark said. “If this goes here, will this match up with that?”
Critical thinking has worked for the team. Johnson has now worked in the Capitol for 30 years, and J&G has also worked on the Pennsylvania State Law Library, the Pennsylvania State Forum, the U.S. Treasury Building, Historic St. Mary’s Church in Lancaster and more.
The work is never done. Johnson has to re-invent new ways of doing things as materials change. For example, when volatile organic compounds were eliminated in certain paints, the material didn’t work like it used to.
“Now, I have a wealth of experience and understanding of adhesives and paints and different canvases and wood finishes,” Johnson said.
His work in the Capitol is ongoing. He’s done certain areas a couple of times because of water damage, people running into things and more. He also hand-winds all 230 historic clocks in the building every Monday, Thursday and Friday.
Johnson found it funny that, when he went to purchase workers compensation insurance, J&G was in the same category as circus performers. However, the more he thought about it, the more he realized it made sense.
“We show up with our scaffolding instead of our tent, and we plastic off rooms like a tent,” he said. “We’re there for a couple months, and then we’re gone.”
For now, Johnson and his conservation and restoration circus have folded up their tent inside the North Office Building. But it’s only matter of time until they make their way up the Capitol steps again.
For more information about Johnson & Griffiths, visit www.johnsonandgriffiths.com.