by Carol Masiello

    It all started last June (2004) as a charette was held at the former church to discuss numerous ways of raising much needed funds for the magnificent structure and art laden interior of St. Ann's Cultural Center in Woonsocket. Truly a treasure within the Blackstone Valley, its interior has national and even global significance and is often referred to as the "Lil Sistine Chapel".  Enter Wolfie, filled with excitement and classic art works with a little touch of Zen! Wolf is a woman with a passion for an art form that is infectious as she communicates the beauty and transcendental nature of her art. You are drawn into her spell and quite frankly you don’t wish to be set free. Wolf opens our eyes to a splendor that surrounds us but we take for granted. We have encountered it almost everywhere throughout our lives and that splendor is fresco art. When we think of fresco, we immediately think of the beautiful works done by Italian artists during the Renaissance. But fresco art is as old as it is young. It dates back to the cave paintings done by early humans and it is as recent as the Great Depression. Think back to the libraries, post offices, banks, museums and train stations of your childhood and there they are. Wolf (that is her real name!) is a trained artist who resides in Baltimore and for years she worked in the fashion field designing furniture and jewelry. A trip to Italy to study mosaics introduced her to fresco and that is when the love relationship was formed with the “Mother of All Art Forms”. It is the love of this art form that has brought Wolf to the Blackstone Valley.

    Fresco art is the art of painting with pigment onto fresco lime plaster. It can be done two ways, one is Buon Fresco, painting on fresh plaster and the second is Fresco Secco, painting on dry plaster. The fresco plaster is a sand and lime mixture that requires the hand of a master mason. The painting is done with pigments, which are stones that come from the earth and are ground on a piece of glass and mixed with limewater so that they can disperse on the plaster. Only 15 pigments are needed to create the spectrum of colors found in frescos. When painted on wet plaster (Buon Fresco) the colors are absorbed into the plaster as they are layered on, forming almost a crystal matrix of calcium carbonate. They are bound to the wall versus being applied to the wall and all these factors make it a permanent art form. 

     Wolf describes the depth and glowing beauty of the fresco as “pure bliss”. Working with limewater (which is very caustic) ruins brushes so the brushes for frescos have to be special ones. They come from only one town in the world, a tiny village in Italy. There a certain breed of cow is raised for the hair on the tip of its tail; this hair can withstand the soaking in the limewater and can absorb enough pigment to last for many strokes. For the actual artwork a cartoon of the same dimensions as the contemplated fresco is drawn then it is perforated with tiny holes through a grid on the cartoon. To transfer the design to the wall, pounce, or dust, is applied through the perforations in the cartoon to the wet coat of plaster. Once the wet plaster has been made ready, the actual work has to take place non-stop. Work can go as long as 10 straight hours, no coffee breaks here. Large frescos are done in segments, each piece having to be completed before the next one is started. It takes as long as 300 years for fresco colors to achieve their full beauty. The sublime beauty of fresco is that it is not an individual art form; it needs many skilled artisans for every stage. The mason (plaster), the cartoon artist, the grid person, the pigment maker, the punch artist and then the fresco artist, each person is equally important in the success of the fresco. Fresco combines drafting, drawing and craft skills all the while teaching you a new way to see. It breaks conventional ideas of what painting should be like.


     Wolf is an excellent ambassador for the promotion of this glorious art form. A diminutive woman with eyes that sparkle, she floats like a butterfly from topic to topic catching you in the whirlwinds that are her thoughts. She becomes earnest when she shares how she feels that fresco can be both a popular art form and a way to outreach to children and the underprivileged in communities. At a charette in June held in St. Ann’s Church in Woonsocket, community groups from all over came together to brainstorm ways to find a use for the old church. In addition to re-use of this beautiful edifice, possible ways to fund restoration of the exquisite frescos was discussed (the frescos were done by a nationally known artist). This is where Wolf comes in, literally. Wolf through pure serendipity ambled into this meeting and was able to offer her experience and boundless enthusiasm as a resource for the fresco project. She was able to excite everyone there with successful examples of how communities have undertaken projects similar to this. In Baltimore, The Fresco School (where Wolf is a team member) and St. John’s United Methodist Church have committed to a 2-7 year project that will restore existing frescos and create new ones. Talented youths from the area will be given apprenticeships to learn the craft, while the more experienced students will be given an opportunity to create their own fresco. Community projects like this accomplish two goals. The first is the re-vitalizing of the neighborhood through the re-utilization of an historic property; secondly, it gives the area youth viable job skills that can make them a valuable resource in the employment market. Fresco is an everlasting art form and it will always need skilled artisans for restoration and creation. 

    Will this be a future possibility for historic St. Ann’s? Could fresco art be the binding force behind another successful community project? If everyone involved shares the visions and joy that Wolf has for this project, I personally predict a success.