Conserving History: Easter Conservation Works to Restore the Past

Writer  /  Joshua Deisler

As Jean Easter was opening her mail, she came across an interesting letter from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But it was not just a letter; it was an invitation. The challenge: design an ornament for the White House Christmas tree.

Jean points to the photo of Laura Bush and remembers how artists from all over the country gathered at the White House for the Christmas tree reception. “That was amazing,” says Jean who recalls designing a Cardinal bird for the tree.

But what led her to the White House that Christmas started decades earlier in an old farmhouse in Syracuse, New York. Day by day, Jean’s father would work to restore the kitchen, the walls, the floors — anything that needed work. “He could do everything, and I mean everything,” she says. “I always grew up with doing things by hand.”

27085094204_f553e30d55_kIndeed, restoring history was a family affair, which led her to the Fashion Institute of Technology where Jean studied jewelry design and restoration of decorative objects. Soon, she began working as an outdoor conservator.

Jean later found herself in Indianapolis, working at the IMA in frame restoration. She enjoyed the intricate process of working with frames, especially the gilding process: “It’s like baking a cake. You have to let the material dictate to you what it needs and when it needs it.” In fact, one of her most challenging jobs, she says, was gilding the elevator cars at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse.

After 11 years at the IMA, Jean wanted to start her own business. “You work a whole lot harder and you work more, but the benefits are so much richer,” she says. In 2001, she opened Easter Conservation Services at 54th Street and the Monon Trail. The shop offers framing, matting, antique frames and conservation of paintings, frames, furniture, jewelry and other objects.

Jean and her employees Gina Golden, Warren O’Connell and Jiliana Hughey treasure making pieces come back to life for their clients. “If something’s leaving here, it needs to be right,” says Warren, the shop’s frame manager.

Historical items often enter the shop in very poor condition. Gina, the conservation technician, recalls receiving pieces damaged from fires or tornadoes. But after careful and patient work, a smoke-damaged painting and a wind-torn desk are somehow whole again. “It’s like putting a puzzle together; just figure out where all the pieces go,” says Gina.27085093434_abdc6b5102_k

Jean prides herself in her museum training. “Everyone who works here only knows museum methods because that’s all I know to teach them,” she says. “You’re not going to get anything different from the IMA that you’re going to get here.” Even their method of framing involves only museum techniques.

“Everything that we do is reversible,” says Jean who is a professional associate of the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IAC). Over the years, she has received a grant from the Indy Arts Council to study with a frame conservator at the National Portrait Gallery as well as a grant from IAC to study French furniture-making techniques.

Jean and her family of employees at the shop take pride in their work to conserve old pieces. “We work very judiciously with the pieces we have,” she says. Jean is passionate about maintaining an object’s original, historical character.

Over the years, they have all faced their fair share of challenges: they have restored not just paintings and old frames but marriage certificates, World War I uniforms and furniture. They recall the challenge of piecing together a torn Chinese fan and the client’s joy at seeing her old fan restored. “It’s keeping your family history alive. It’s keeping the whole remembrance of family culture alive,” says Jean.

All-in-all, Jean, Warren, Gina and Jiliana find their greatest joy sharing the responsibility of conserving history. “Making things fresh and new again is rewarding,” says Warren.

But perhaps Gina says it best: “The greatest thing is the business of making people happy.” And at Easter Conservation, this is what restoring history is about. 

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