John Canning Painting and Conservation Studios
by Garret Jaros
In 1976, while America was celebrating its bicentennial, newly arrived Scottish immigrant John Canning was discovering his future in America's past.
|The Nathan Hale wing in the Connecticut State Capitol.
The bicentennial sparked a renewed interest in the country's history, and consequently in its architecture and decoration. A lot of research was being done at the time in period design and decoration, but few could interpret what was being uncovered, the degree of restoration necessary, and the color scheme needed to tie it all together.
Canning started restoring American folk art from the 18th century and learned about the history of the Colonial period in the United States, when many floors had been painted to simulate marble and other exotic materials that were too expensive to import.
The faux paintings inspired him to create new faux designs, such as patterns that looked like Oriental rugs. "That is where my training came into effect," Canning says in a Scottish brogue. "I created quite a nice little market for that and for about a year that's what I did. I happened to be at the right place at the right time, where there was an interest and revival, if you will."
Little did he know then that when he pursued these interests further, it would land him prestigious jobs working on Grand Central Station, Radio City Music Hall and more, moving from one world-class building to another.
With one employee, John Canning Painting & Conservation Studios in Cheshire, Conn., was born. Canning had worked as a member of the London City & Guilds in his Glasgow studio, served a five-year apprenticeship in the applied decorative arts as a church decorator, and completed programs at the Scottish Decorative Trade Institute, Glasgow Stow College of Building and Glasgow School of Art.
Today, Canning's company is a full-service family-run business, employing no more than 30 people at a time to keep management simple. Currently, 16 employees are working on a handful of projects, and two of Canning's three daughters, as well as a son-in-law who stepped in as vice president, are helping to run operations, freeing Canning to focus on the research and interpretation he loves.
The company's artists come from backgrounds as diverse as the work they do. There is a conservator, an artist trained in exterior billboards, a scenic painter for the theater, and a 20-year employee who originally served as an apprentice in the company under guidelines written by Canning.
|The House of Representatives at the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
Canning's studio restores murals and creates new murals, and specializes in designs and decorative finishes — including wood graining and marbleizing, popular finishes, interior and exterior gilding, ornamental plasters and conservation of historic plaster.
The artists follow and copy the techniques and materials used in the original work they uncover. "In a lot of the treatments we use, I'm still old-fashioned enough to use materials that were used hundreds of years ago," says Canning. "For example, when we are doing some of our wood graining or simulated finishes, I still use protein binders, and that protein binder takes the form of beer. I prefer an ale because the lagers lack the same binding properties."
The modern materials the company uses are usually doctored in some way — even if it's just by adding linseed oil to alkaloid enamel to make it flow easier and last longer. "My training was that we often had to create our own paint. In my experience, I find that linseed oil is the staple of our industry." Adding linseed oil to alkyd resin will make it more flowable, workable and durable.
When clients ask for a historical building to be restored as it was, Canning follows a four-step process for an interior analysis: First, he does archival research on the building. He goes to local newspapers or libraries and looks for articles and photographs pertaining to when the structure was being built. Second, he and his crew do field research in which they remove several layers of paint to analyze. Next, a scientific approach is taken and the paint is sent to a lab for both color and material analysis. Fourth is interpreting the findings — and Canning plays a large role in this. "My interpretation relies on my experience I have had in the industry for 48 years."
The company's projects have included many famous historical sites: the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, the state capitols of Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia, the Boston Public Library, the San Francisco City Hall dome, Christ Church in New York, Our Lady Help of Christians church and the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts, and the Battell Chapel and graduate student lounge at Yale University.
Working on America's historical sites has also sparked Canning's interest in history. "We learn many, many things that one doesn't learn in history books. For example, while restoring the San Francisco Opera House I learned it was the first venue for the United Nations."
And during the 1998 restoration of Grand Central Station's sky mural, he discovered inscriptions left by the artists who reinstated the mural in 1944. One noted the return of a soldier in 1945 and another, below the Gemini constellation, memorialized the birth of an artist's twins.
Canning's company is pre-qualified by The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC) to do restoration and conservation work. The company is also a member of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. The union allows them to work anywhere in the U.S. with the flexibility of not meeting local hiring quotas. But Canning says hiring people with local knowledge is always a good idea and the company does so when possible.
Canning does not rely on much traditional advertising to bag such high-profile jobs. Marketing is mostly word-of-mouth and reputation, along with a few advertisements in trade magazines.
The company's success can be attributed to several policies they follow within their company. When submitting proposals, the company includes not only its qualifications, but also the resumes and qualifications of every person who will be working on the project.
"It is important to let the owner know who is doing the work. Let the client have a comfort level with the people who are working on the job."
Another policy the company follows is to offer the client reassurance by allowing them to check up on the work. "One of the philosophies in our company that I have established is that we always have peer review. Whenever we have a very important building, a national monument, we try to encourage the owners to have a review of what we are doing by knowledgeable experts in various fields — that's always been our policy."
Above all else, Canning advises other contractors to put quality first. "A lot of times, you're tempted to cut corners, your maybe tempted to say 'Well, I'm slow right now so maybe if I cut my price I might just be able to capture this job.' When you start to do that you go down that slippery slope."
He reiterates that quality is all-important. "When a job is complete, no one talks about the cost… they talk about the quality."