Ask the Experts

How should you care for old paintings?

Michele Ortlip, gallery director of Four Generations Art Gallery in Vineyard Haven
“One must be very careful when handling an old painting,” says Michele Ortlip. “My family has been dealing with old paintings for a long time and will probably be doing so for a long time coming, since we have four generations–plus of artists’ work.”

Michele does not do restoration of works of art, but she has contacts with professionals off-Island, and is willing to assist and advise on cleaning an old painting.

Her father, who passed away last February, taught her a lot about preserving old works of art. “My beloved artist-father, the late Paul D. Ortlip, always said not to wrap an oil painting in bubble wrap when storing or shipping. Cardboard can be put around it, then bubble.” Michele cautions against storing artwork in plastic bags. “Archival storage containers are best, and an old sketch pad should have acid-free tissue paper put between each page. Acid-free is key to all of it.” She also advises against using paper clips or rubber bands.

 When handling an old piece, Michele has specific advice, “When lifting an old painting, do not do it from the top. Use two hands, and don’t carry it by the wire on the back either. They are known to have deteriorated and may just give out.” She recommends keeping the original frame with a piece. “Artist-selected frames are always best when buying an old painting, no matter the shape – for value anyway. Even if the frame is chipping, if the artist framed it, the painting has more value.”

To care for a piece, Michele says, “one may try dusting a painting first, using a new paint brush. Dusting can also do wonders to an old frame. Always use a brush, especially with an ornate frame.” She also suggests wiping it with a damp cloth – not dripping wet – to dust it. “The key words here are gently, and cotton cloth, not cotton balls or Q-tips.”

Michele and her dad used white cotton rags torn into small strips when she worked with him a few years back to restore George Washington on the Palisades, a painting by his father, H. Willard Ortlip, which now hangs in the Fort Lee Borough Hall in New Jersey. To clean the surface of the painting, they used soapy water and gentle, small, circular motions. On some spots, an emulsion cleaner was diluted to remove the dirt, and a varnish remover, to reduce the yellow from the paint.

“One must not try to remove actual paint,” she cautions. “Most of the time, good old soap and water work best. It can be dish soap, diluted. If the painting is dull and slightly yellowed and is very old, it usually would do well with a basic cleaning. Again, the operative word is gently since you don’t want to lift off paint.
“After we cleaned the Washington painting, my father was able to fill in spaces where paint had fallen off with a neutral filler sold in art stores, which he did with a palette knife. When that dried, he carefully painted in color, matching strokes and tones. The painting had been done by his father, my grandfather, so he had the advantage of knowing his style.”

She offers a final caution about where you keep paintings. “Don’t hang them in a direct sunlit spot! Especially not original watercolors.”

What are new trends in carpeting?

Elizabeth Dowd of Karpet Kare in Vineyard Haven

In an era when environmental impact is a primary concern, it’s nice to know even the carpet under our feet may be as “green” as our lawn. “People come in and ask for recycled or recyclable carpet. Especially now, a lot of people are looking for it,” says Elizabeth Dowd, Karpet Kare’s controller.
Even the backing of synthetic carpets is PVC-free (which means no polyvinyl chloride plastic). Jute, a plant-based fiber, is used to back carpets. “There’s a demand for it,” says Elizabeth. “It’s in the forefront of thinking.”

Elizabeth says Berber carpets are the most popular today. She goes on to explain a bit of carpet history: The most ecological carpet is made of wool, which is a natural fiber, and the first wool carpets are attributed to the Berber tribes of North Africa. “It was spun with thick yarn, in a random pattern, a beige color with specks, made of raw wool. Berber has big loops. Over time, Berbers caught on.”

In the 1980s, synthetics such as nylon were used to create carpets with Berber-style large-loop weave, typically in an off-white or camel color. “Today’s Berber is manufactured by machine. It has big, giant loops and the [same] color of wool, but now it is made of nylon.” And nylon Berbers are now made with dots added, to simulate the specks in the original wool carpets. Because the style of loop is stronger, it is better able to bear foot traffic. Also, the spots camouflage stains.

In today’s world of carpets, the emphasis is on recycling. Carpet developed from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), or recycled soda bottles, contains a high percentage of recycled material. PET fibers are not absorbent, so they resist stains and do not fade, and the colors are often brighter than nylon. And carpets made of PET have more strength and last longer than those made of conventional nylon fibers.

Even carpet itself can be recycled nowadays. Elizabeth says, “Shaw is the largest manufacturer in the country. They have many nylon fibers that are recyclable, so when you change your carpet, they can be taken away and reused. Nylon is capable of being recycled into a new carpet.” Shaw will also accept recyclable carpet by other manufacturers. If it’s not used for a new carpet, the material can be recycled as stair tread or floor tile.

“The industry is trying to do things that are green and better for the environment,” says Elizabeth. The emphasis is on natural fibers or recycled materials while still creating a wearable carpet that resists stains and holds its color and style.

What are some new ideas for indoor plants that you can’t kill but still look good?

Paul Mahoney, owner of Jardin Mahoney in Oak Bluffs

“What works well, and a lot of people are doing, is putting tropical plants outside in summer and bringing them indoors in winter,” says Paul Mahoney. “We see the most popular plant is the tropical hibiscus, as opposed to the rose of Sharon, a perennial hibiscus. It’s tropical, so when you bring it out, use a container and plant annuals around it to give more color and texture. Then choose to keep the annuals, or not.”

Plants grow best indoors when they thrive on appropriate light and water.

Temperature and humidity are also important, but Paul emphasizes light and water.

Like a real estate agent, he considers location, location, location. “Whatever is outside, bring in. Hibiscus needs full sun in a sunny location all day. That’s not absolutely necessary, but it helps.” And plants need sustenance. “For feeding, use any general purpose fertilizer such as Osmocote, which is time-released fertilizer. Water regularly,” he says, adding, “Let the plant dry completely before watering.” (Seems easy enough, even for those with a brown thumb.)

“The biggest problem with indoor plants is over-watering. Lot of times, the indication is the plant starts to yellow out. Let it dry out completely before watering,” he stresses. “Best way is to put it in the sink and let the water run through it, and let the soil suck it up.”

Another outdoor plant that will look good inside with lots of light is the Mande-villa boliviensis. It’s a tropical flowering plant that won’t grow much in winter. “Mande-villa is really good. Typically it’s a viney plant, though it can be a shrub if trained around a trellis,” Paul says. “As a vine, it can get pretty long. A lot of people take it in from the trellis, cut it down, and bring it in, in winter. Growth slows down inside in winter.” Paul recommends fertilizing the plant and, again, allowing it to get dry, prior to watering.

“The most popular plant is Ficus benjamina, which is in the fig family. That needs full sun,” he says, adding some words of caution: “If you move the plant inside, from one place to another, it drops its leaves. It has to reacclimate to a new location. There’s nothing wrong with it.” Once it stabilizes, the plant, commonly known as a weeping fig, may outgrow its pot and require pruning.

If you don’t get direct light in your home, Paul says that palms thrive with bright, indirect light. “Palms are much better indoors, because they tolerate lower light conditions.”

What’s the best kind of Vineyard driveway?

Principal and lead architect James Weisman of Terrain Architects in Vineyard Haven

“A driveway is a transition from transportation to your house,” says architect James Weisman, who has practiced on-Island since 1976. The more convenient you make the driveway, James cautions, the less you experience the rest of your home environment.

“I walk two hundred feet on my grass. It’s important. I love my yard and wouldn’t have the experience of seeing the stars if my driveway were longer. It’s important to me,” he says. “One thing I’ve noticed is that driveways are sometimes too short, never entering the space for a car. Or too vast. Some are too defined and over formal.”

He considers the location of where to park your car: “I prefer to keep it far away. Some people drive into their garage, get out of their car, and go into the house. That’s the extreme reverse from walking across the lawn.

“There’s a place in Harthaven [in Oak Bluffs] that had a driveway to the end of a bluff, overlooking the water. We abbreviated the driveway, and put in two brick tire trails through the grass to the bluff,” James says, so that routine traffic has the option of going behind the house, while visitors or occasional traffic can use the water-view drive.

In terms of what material to use on the driveway surface, James says, “What you see is texture. If it is asphalt, it looks like where the car goes. If what you see is brick or grass, [customarily] it’s not where the car goes.” He likes to see driveway designs with less emphasis on the vehicle, “Just make the area good for walking, not cars.” He suggests picturing the public parking lot at Edgartown harbor, by the yacht club: “If they bricked it in, with cobblestones for lines, a change of materials changes the atmosphere.”

Materials affect the aesthetics. “Crushed shells are good,” he says, “most traditional. I have no idea of the smell, the cost, or how long it lasts. Black Dog has crushed shells.”

There are also practical concerns. “I worked on a McMansion. The driveway had to accommodate servants, owners, and guests. The driveway has more complex needs. On surface material, some places can’t support a path, the soil is too muddy. Crushed shells might work or be ground into the soil. You need a good base or the surface will sink. Crushed stones compact; they stay in place. Pea stones tend to roll away, because they are more round.
“A hard surface like asphalt doesn’t absorb rainwater and creates a run-off. The [Martha’s Vineyard] Commission won’t permit water going off your property, so you need bogs or plants that absorb the water or a dry well. You get more problems with asphalt than with a porous surface that absorbs the rainwater.”

He adds a final thought, “A driveway is like a terminal: Every day you go from your familiar place to other places. Do you want it to be grandiose or mellow? Asking questions doesn’t define it, but it leads to goals for design of your driveway.”