Published September 8, 2010
A little over a year ago a professional artists’ collective emerged from the shadows of Sarasota’s contemporary art scene going by the name S/ART/Q. Their first exhibition was held in November at the former DK Vogue space downtown, followed by a second exhibition at G.Wiz Science Museum in March. But the original event that introduced the group to the community was a screen-printing party held at the HuB incubator in the Rosemary District last August. The nonprofit collective will now return to their humble beginnings for a second installment of their Print Party, a fundraising event where each artist offers a custom made design for screen-printing onto any cloth item you wish for only $5 a print.
Many of the artists involved in S/ART/Q are former Ringling Art School grads, but few have remained as close to the institution as Dave Piurek, a conservation technician and gilder for The John and Mable Ringling Museum. After receiving his BFA from Ringling College in 1998, Piurek landed a job as assistant preparer for the museum, actually working under fellow S/ART/Q artist Joseph Arnegger, hanging the priceless works of art that had been acquired by John Ringling. An avid art collector, Ringling had purchased over 13,000 pieces, many of them prominent works from all periods of art history, which now make up the vast majority of art on display at the Museum.
After a year and a half Piurek was asked to step in as assistant gilder. Gilding is the process of applying gold leaf to solid surfaces like wood, stone and metal. A 3 and 3/8 inch square sheet of 22-karat gold leaf runs about $1 per sheet, making a four-inch tall stack worth over $1 million. The 23 1/2-karat sheets are $2 a piece. This required Piurek to spend months learning the tricks of the trade, many involving the alchemy of materials and techniques to keep from wasting too much of the precious metal.
After proving his gilding skills on a number of centuries-old frames from Ringling’s vault, Piurek was assigned to help refurbish the Historic Asolo Theater, which took his team two years to complete. “Being a gilder is one thing, but being a gilder that does restoration is a whole different ball game,” says Piurek, “because now you have to worry about keeping the integrity of the object. Since we are the Ringling Museum, we have to respect John Ringling… Museums have to follow their mission and ours is to recreate what it was like when John Ringling walked around here.”
The project Piurek has been working on over the past two years will help to fulfill an important part of that mission. He recently finished the gilding work on John Ringling’s personal train car, the Wisconsin, which Ringling purchased from the Pullman Company in 1905. Everything from the ceiling decoration, to the pinstripe, to the “Wisconsin” lettering and “JR” logo on the side is gilded in gold, as it was when Ringling rode in it until 1916. The assignment has been a dream job for Piurek, who recieves just as much inspriation from history as art.
Piurek often incorporates aspects of his restoration and gilding experience at Ringling into his own artwork. It’s nearly impossible to walk through his home studio, which doubles as his dining room, without having little pieces of gold leaf stick to your skin. The weathering and wear of historic artworks that Piurek has restored directly inspire his pieces as well. He intentionally recreates the crackling effect and distressed surfaces of old paintings and frames to give his work a used and abused feel, even letting his pieces “improve with age” as the metals tarnish over time.
“It’s something nice to transform ugly things into beautiful gold gilded things,” says Puirek. “I always like to get one thing and do the opposite or the irony of it. I’m going to completely gild this nasty old dirty warehouse palette. I’m going to do all these old Renaissance techniques to it, and then I’m going to transform it into this amazing, glorious gilded object that’s not supposed to be gilded. It’s like gilding a turd or something.” He plans to put the palette underneath a high-hung painting so viewers will have to stand on it to get a closer look, naturally distressing the gilded wood over the course of the exhibition.
Another major influence in Piurek’s art is a work by Pieter Brueghel the Elder painted in 1563 called “The Tower of Babel.” Piurek regards it as the greatest piece ever painted. He has used the mountainous, pyramid-like form of the depicted biblical tower in more than sixty of his works over the past ten years, including last year’s Print Party design. But this year he’s taking a new direction: “I’m trying to get away from the tower of Babel, so I started to cut out these diamond shapes. I really dig this kind of scale thing. Gilding is all about reflections, and when you put bevels on things you get more reflections. So that’s on my T-shirt design.”