Look homeward, angels

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Inside this little workshop in Edwardsville — amid paint drops and plaster dust — angels get new wings.

They come here from all over Missouri, Illinois and parts of Indiana to have their arms reattached or their heads glued back on. And there usually are some saints, as well, waiting for new noses or fingers or toes.

When they go back to their churches, their robes have been freshly airbrushed and their faces gleam.

They look simply heavenly.

On a recent morning, it was business as usual at the art studio of Max Autenrieb Church Interior Decorating, which creates and restores ecclesiastical art.

Kathy Bequette was airbrushing flesh-colored paint onto a life-size statue of Jesus Christ, while a smaller statue of the risen Jesus, with a repaired left arm, awaited its new coating. St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in St. Louis was expecting that statue home for Easter services.

At the edge of a worktable stood a tall St. Joseph, holding a new staff with white lilies. But a distressed St. Brendan was still waiting to have a broken hand replaced.

Upstairs, in a tiny room just off a loft, Brenda Wasser, a granddaughter of the studio’s namesake, was drawing a dove that would become the centerpiece for a church mural.

Two Franciscan Brothers of the Holy Cross had already stopped by to pick up a statue of Jesus to be displayed on Easter Sunday in their chapel at St. James Monastery in Springfield, Ill.

“Wow,” said Brother John Francis Tyrrell, as he walked in the door and saw the figure, which had been meticulously sanded and repainted. The statue was seatbelted safely into their car’s back seat for the trip home.

“It’s tremendous what they are doing here,” Brother Christian Guertin said.

“They are carrying on the tradition of their grandfather. Max Autenrieb was a tremendous artist.”

This is a family business, now in its third and fourth generations, that traces its roots to the 1920s when artist Max Autenrieb left Germany to paint frescos at St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church in Edwardsville. He became known for the murals and frescos he painted in churches throughout the Midwest.

His grandson Kevin Autenrieb, 53, now owns the place. He says the art restoration business was a natural offshoot of the company’s main business, which is the painting and decorating of church interiors. Autenrieb is Wasser’s brother. Autenrieb’s son Andy and daughter Lori also work for the company, and Wasser’s daughter Ericca does sometimes, too.

Restoration work goes on year-round at the studio, but the weeks before Christmas and Easter are particularly busy because churches want their damaged nativity sets or stations of the cross repaired in time for holiday services.

“There are always last-minute calls: ‘We’ve got a problem here. Jesus doesn’t have an arm,'” Autenrieb said.

Sometimes, Wasser, 45, is asked to refurbish a mural originally painted by her grandfather. She has an art degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, but she also learned techniques from her grandfather, who died in 1987, and her father, Fred Autenrieb, and aunt Mary Pizzini. When the studio is commissioned to do original murals, Wasser said, she might turn to her grandfather’s original sketches for inspiration.

Every job offers a challenge, whether it’s matching old paint colors or rescuing murals that have been hidden under layers of paint.

“It’s never the same thing twice,” Wasser said.

Autenrieb said the company does work for many denominations, including Lutheran, Methodist and United Church of Christ, as well as Russian Orthodox churches, but Roman Catholic churches account for the largest percentage.

Statues that were brought from Germany and other European countries during the last century are often irreplaceable, and many of the U.S. companies that once produced plaster statues have gone out of business. Newer religious statues are often made of molded fiberglass.

Restoring religious statues is highly specialized, and only a handful of shops do this work in the St. Louis area.

The cost can vary, depending on size and how detailed the work will be, but the average price for a 5-foot statue is $650, Autenrieb said.

Bequette, who has worked at the studio for 16 years, says the staff will occasionally visit a church after the statues have been reinstalled.

“It’s fun to see them back in their homes,” she said.

By Mary Delach Leonard
mleonard@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8260

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