History Works profiles individuals whose professions enhance Pennsylvania’s historical and cultural assets through diverse disciplines such as preservation, restoration, conservation, research, documentation and interpretation.

One of the first things you notice about Jeffrey B. Johnson — in addition to his easy smile and dulcet voice — are his hands. As he passionately speaks about his work, he often gestures and it’s hard not to take note of his thin, elegant fingers. They belong to a master craftsman.

Johnson, who lives in Harrisburg, is an exceptionally talented conservator, paint analyst, gilder, designer, artist, restorer, and decorative painter. His projects have ranged from restoring Pennsylvania’s magnificent State Capitol to conserving a Hanukkah menorah belonging to Harrisburg’s Temple Ohev Sholom. But there are many commissions — both public and private — in between, including interior design and furniture design and fabrication for an upscale gentlemen’s club in the capital city.

For Johnson, though, it’s all about color.

Born in Johnstown, Cambria County, in 1967, he became fascinated with colors at a young age as he watched his father, Barry Johnson, a house painter, mix tints. “My dad has been my greatest inspiration and influence on my career. He did something very similar to what I do today and that’s why I feel so comfortable with color. Knowing color is the foundation for conservation work. You need to be able to precisely match colors, especially when in-painting murals and decoration. This came to be extremely handy because I was responsible for mixing the custom paint colors for the restoration of the State Capitol by the art and architectural conservation firm of Albert Michaels Conservation.” Johnson was hired at the age of nineteen by the company’s cofounder and conservator, John Rita, in 1987; he was made a partner and named director of operations in 2000.

He clearly enjoys painting. “I feel lucky to be able to keep expanding my skills with each new project. I move from discipline to discipline. It’s important to realize that every project presents its own set of challenges that demand you learn something new. The job at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., is a good example. In the Secretary of the Treasury’s Diplomatic Reception Room, an ornate pattern was uncovered in the ceiling, just before it was to be removed. Albert Michaels was awarded the contract. One of the other bidders recommended creating a photo-print of the pattern, but I couldn’t see that at all, and neither could the folks in Washington. Using black and white photographs, we re-created the pattern in our Harrisburg studio. I could create the color and the pattern, but I couldn’t paint the lines by hand, which was critical to the project. I learned how to paint lines from one of my colleagues, who had been a sign painter. You need to learn the old techniques and use materials that are considered ‘lost’ by many people today.”

His most recent job was the conservation of a large central mural depicting Mary’s assumption into heaven in Historic St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lancaster. Measuring ten by eighteen feet, the mural had been severely damaged during a misguided restoration nearly twenty years ago. The mural is one of three created for St. Mary’s by Filippo Costaggini (1839–1904), chosen by Constantino Brumidi (1805–1880) on his death bed to complete the frieze in the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Both artists had trained at Rome’s Accademia di San Luca.

“In 1992, the St. Mary’s mural was cut from its stretcher frame and glued to a new piece of canvas and then varnished and nearly completely painted over,” Johnson says. “We painstakingly removed the varnish and over-paint, replaced missing pieces with new canvas, attached the original painting to a new piece of canvas with conservation adhesive, and integrated and in-painted patched areas of new canvas to match the original. We reattached the painting to its original stretcher frame and reinstalled the painting to its original location behind the main altar.” The painting was restored in Albert Michaels’s conservation laboratory in Altoona.

Johnson is philosophical about his work, no matter how large or how small. “There is often a disconnect between the historic — with a capital H — and the present. I hear many people talking about historic buildings and neighborhoods and works of art as if they are dead, just remnants of the past. ‘Historic’ should be an example of what can still be.

“What I try to glean from the past is multifold: What are we missing out on? What have we forgotten? What should we not lose? In our pursuit of the future or in the name of progress, we discard things that presently work or have worked in the past. Because of my work I am forced to not forget the past and what has worked in the past. I am constantly learning and relearning how to use materials and techniques. I’ve learned a great deal about a wide range of materials, especially their strengths and weaknesses, and the reasons they were used in one area but not in another. I enjoy using historic materials and traditional decorative techniques for new projects.”

Johnson credits many of his skills to his largest and most comprehensive work that’s been ongoing for nearly a quarter of a century. “A lot of my experience has been acquired over the last twenty-four years working on the State Capitol, a building originally created with a conscious effort to collaborate among architect, builder, artist, designer, and craftsmen. Architect Joseph M. Huston [1866–1940] purposely injected art and artists in the building’s creation. He wanted the art to interact with the architecture — and the visitor to interact with both. He utilized the talents of artists Edwin Austin Abbey [1862–1911], Violet Oakley [1874–1961], William B. Van Ingen [1858–1955], and George Grey Barnard [1863–1938], among others. He chose Bucks County pottery maker Henry Chapman Mercer [1856– 1930], a collector of artifacts representing American artisanal culture, to create the floor tiles and mosaics for the first-floor public hallways. Exceptionally conscious of the past, Mercer worried that the handmade object was becoming lost to mass production. You can see the hand of the artist, the beautiful imperfection that comes from making terracotta tiles, which by the very process makes each unique and varied. Huston was paying homage to the past but he also was being more forward-thinking than if he had used the most modern materials available to him at the time. He was not afraid to put front and center something as antique and un-modern as handmade terracotta tile.”

Echoing Huston’s collaborative style, Johnson and his wife, Norah Griffiths Johnson, established Johnson and Griffiths Studio LLC in 2007 to create and conserve fine art, conduct color analysis and color consultations, and design interiors and furniture. They work in the artisan studio and workshop tradition, where independent designers and craftspeople can collaborate on decorative arts projects.

Johnson’s résumé is as varied as it is long. He repainted a large section of The Light Within, a section of a trompe l’oeil mural entitled Community Bridge (1995) in Frederick, Maryland, by William Cochran. In partnership with the Society of Gilders, he was a member of a team that regilded the United States Marine Memorial (commonly called the Iwo Jima Memorial) in the nation’s capital. He conserved a portrait of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Chew (1722–1810). For Albert Michaels, he restored the interior public spaces of Milton S. Hershey’s residence, High Point, which once housed the Hershey Country Club and is now home to the Hershey Trust Company. From 1999 through 2003, he restored and conserved the interior decorative finishes in the Hershey Theatre. His work in Pennsylvania includes the Academy of Music, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Tenth Presbyterian Church, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square; Grace Episcopal Church, Ridgway; Zion Lutheran Church, Glen Rock; and a bridal salon in Harrisburg and a restaurant in nearby Hummelstown.

In association with Milner and Carr Conservation LLC, Philadelphia, an affiliate of John Milner Architects, Chadds Ford, Johnson in-painted repaired areas of Barnard’s massive marble sculptures flanking the main entrance of the Pennsylvania State Capitol. For both firms, he undertook extensive color consultations and restored large sections of water-damaged decorative painting at the Royal Orchard Estate in Charlottesville, Virginia. John Russell Pope (1874–1937) an architect best known for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., designed the interiors of the estate’s main house.

Of his many accomplishments, Johnson cites a lecture entitled “Gilding of Historic Theaters” he was invited to give by the Society of Gilders at its 2007 conference held at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. “I was honored to participate in this event. I based my talk on case studies from my work on the Hershey Theatre. I discussed the process of how we analyzed, identified, and restored the many complex gilded surfaces in this historic building.”

In an interview conducted on Monday, January 31, he summarized the direction of his career. “I want to use the lucky situation in which I have been placed and take all my years of experience working in the decorative arts using gold leaf, pigments, paints, stenciling and, particularly color, to find new and interesting ways to use them. I will continue conserving and restoring works by long deceased artists and decorators, but I also create my own new art and decoration for interiors of new buildings. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.” Before the interview ended, he emphasized his favorite part of work. “I love color. I am a connoisseur of color.” What a fitting tribute to his earliest mentor, his father, who died in 1981 when his protégé was a high school freshman.

To see a portfolio of projects in which Johnson has participated, visit www.albertmichaels.com and www.johnsongriffiths.com.