Omaha artist tenderly, respectfully restores religious images

By Susan Szalewski

Mary Ann Chaney mends broken fingers and toes, reshapes noses, cleans wounds and brightens skin.

But her tools aren’t medical scalpels, needles, splints or bandages.

Rather, they are brushes, paints, plaster and files.

Chaney is an artist who uses her painting and sculpting skills to repair broken religious statues and other artwork. She has touched up Nativity sets, Stations of the Cross, images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, crucifixes and murals.

Her repairs have saved religious images at, among other places, her parish, St. John on the Creighton University campus, and at the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Omaha’s Holy Family Community Center, where Chaney and her husband, John, volunteer.

For individuals, she charges $50 an hour for her work. But for her parish and other organizations close to her heart, the work is free.

Chaney has had a long career as an artist, having had her own gallery in Brownville and a studio in the Passageway at Omaha’s Old Market. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1972.

For nearly 20 years Chaney volunteered at Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. “It helps to work around works of art,” she says.

On a recent morning – as sunlight streamed into the Chaneys’  third-floor apartment in Omaha – the artist tenderly cared for a figure of a crucified Christ. She laid the statue on a splattered painter’s cloth on her kitchen table and got to work.

As she looks at the crucified Jesus before her, she admires the work of another artist. This image of Christ has glass blue eyes looking up toward Heaven with “lovely detailed eyelashes.”

“You don’t want to destroy that,” Chaney says.

She takes care to try to make her repairs match the original. She says her work is fooling  people’s eyes so they don’t notice the parts she touched up.

She starts by using a tiny dab of plaster to fashion a new nose for Jesus. The original had chipped off.

“You have to work fast with the plaster because it’s only workable for a short period of time,” she explains as she forms the new nose. “You don’t want to let the plaster dry. You just keep kind of tweaking it.”

Later, after the nose dries and hardens, Chaney will create nostrils and delicately sand  away any imperfections with an emery board.

“It seems like a lot of work,” she says, “just a little teensy nose.”

“You have to use a lot of patience and can’t get in a hurry.”

Once the nose is ready to dry, Chaney turns to other repairs on the approximately 2-foot image. 

She uses the plaster to replace missing fingers and toes. Forming them initially, then waiting to perfect them after they dry.

Then Chaney begins paint touch-ups, blending acrylic paints to get just the right skin tones.

“It helps to know a little bit about how to mix the paint,” Chaney says. “One of the things I learned in my painting classes was for basic skin tones, you use a red, a yellow and a white. Then you can mix in all the other shades to it. … It doesn’t seem like, when you think about it, that that would make a skin tone, but it does.”

When patching up areas on the statue, Chaney sometimes has to file away layers of paint to make them level with the surrounding area.

Then she paints anew, one layer at a time.

 “The first layers of paint are not that much fun to work with,” she says. “But at the end, when you start putting the highlights on, that’s really fun.”

“If you look at it closely, you can see that it isn’t painted like a room,” she explains of the statue. “There’s a lot of different colors going on. If you paint just flat paint on it, it would look really weird.”

The knees on the Jesus figure are more complicated because the original artist painted them as scuffed and bleeding. Chaney darkens the skin tone she had been using to match the other dirtied knee. And as a final touch, she repaints blood drips.

Mistakes can happen when she works. But that’s not a problem.

“If you mess up, you can always go back the next day and cover it up,” Chaney says. “That’s the thing about painting. Even with the sculpture part of it, you can go back.”

But she also has to be careful not to fuss too much because “there’s a point where you just have to stop because you’re driving yourself crazy.”

On this weekday morning, the plastering and painting is nearly complete.

“We’ll do the beard, and then I’ll quit,” Chaney says. “But that felt really good.”

Before and After

Now it’s time to clean up. Rinsing the paint brushes has to be done immediately to preserve them, she says.

When she’s not tinkering in art, Chaney and her husband volunteer. At the Holy Family Community Center, the retirees make sandwiches for sack lunches for those in need, hand out clothes and drive a van to deliver the sack lunches to multiple locations.

At St. John, they help couples prepare for marriage through FOCCUS Marriage Ministries.

In 2018 the Chaneys traveled to Honduras with Creighton University students to do mission work. While there, Mary Ann used her artistic skills to paint the faces of children. On her phone she keeps images of the happy, brightly-colored faces.

For Chaney, her art provides multiple ways to serve God and others.

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