Ukrainian Art Rescue: the Tallahassee veteran saving one-of-a-kind oil paintings
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A powerful art exhibit is currently on display on the top floor of the Florida Capitol Building.
The “Two Regimes” art exhibit features art from a Ukrainian painter, inspired by her mother’s memoirs from some of the 20th Century’s darkest days.
WCTV has shared the backstory on that painter, Nadia Werbitzky, and the incredible yard sale discovery that sparked a decades-long mission.
This story focuses on the untold story of a Tallahassee veteran who has almost single-handedly saved the art collection from ruin, thanks to his incredible art restoration skills.
Michael Hall welcomed WCTV cameras to his north Tallahassee home recently, opening up about his unusual journey to saving long-lost Ukrainian art.
He tends to paintings in his at-home studio. It’s a fortress of a room, with shelf after shelf of military collectibles.
“It’s been 71 years of either painting or sculpting military miniatures,” he said.
Hall was an officer in the U.S. Army for over 20 years. He retired in the 1990s. He took up framing at a local art gallery. Soon, that evolved into full-scale oil painting restoration.
“The more you do it, the more you learn what you can and can’t do,” Hall said.
Hall is a humble man with a self-described warped sense of humor. Throughout the conversation, he tried to make the focus on the art work, not his painstaking efforts to save them.
“I guess you could look at it that I’m almost counterfeiting what the original artist did,” he said.
Rehabbing a painting is slow, tedious work. The multi-stage process involves carefully removing pollutants and the original glaze, slowly revealing that artist’s original work.
“There’s definitely a sense of adventure,” Hall said. “But the payoff is, to me, the process, it’s not the end product believe it or not.”
Kelly Bowen is the art curator for the Two Regimes exhibit.
“I’m in awe, absolute awe of Michael Hall’s work,” she said.
The exhibit includes 120 paintings and roughly 150 sketches from Werbitzsky, who used her mother’s memoir to craft powerful works depicting both the Holodomor, the Soviet state-sponsored famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s, and the Holocaust.
Bowen said early efforts to display the works led to a troubling realization.
“Some of the paintings are so damaged, we are going to lose them. If a non-professional were to pick them up, they’d just disintegrate,” she said.
The group approached Hall in 2008, offering only credit at first. He accepted the challenge.
“I had to be as careful as possible because they were important paintings,” he said.
Some works had faded edges. Others had significant termite damage. Each one is a unique challenge.
Hall has restored roughly half of the paintings so far.
Bowen said his efforts will allow the paintings to live on for generations, sharing important lessons for all who see them.
As years go by, Hall says he is slowing down, but he knows there are still 60 more works left to go.
“As I like to say, I have so many projects going on, and I’m so far behind, I’ll never die,” he said.
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