Sylvia James George is a master artist who specializes in profile painting and art restoration. George calls Historic Savage Mill home to her studio, and she recently sat down with Patch to talk about the business she loves.
How long have you been in Savage Mill?
Since 1986, so 26 years.
How long have you painted professionally?
That's a hard question–I'd say all my life. My first studio was here in the Mill, but I had my home studio for years and years before that, and I did a lot of notecards for Ellicott City way back in the seventies and sixties.
Did you go to art school?
I went to Pratt Institute in New York City.
What is the best part of your job?
I just love painting people if they sit for me. I'll set up a mirror and they can watch themselves being painted–like watching TV–they love that. They relax and they enjoy it, and I get their personality that way.
How long do profiles typically take?
I like to work continually for about three hours. If it's broken up into three-hour sessions, I would say six to 12 hours, depending on the medium–pencil, pastel or oils.
What's the worst part of your job?
I don't know if you'd say cleaning up, because that just comes automatically. But cleaning brushes I guess, I don't mind it really.
What are some of the favorite pieces you have worked on?
A Department of Agriculture project was very exciting for me. When they selected me, I had no idea they were looking for an artist to do composites. When they found me, they had seven heads that had to be in one portrait. They were heads of the department of agriculture who passed away in the Oklahoma City bombing.
What makes a profile special?
Their individual personality–talking with them and catching that moment.
What would you say to an aspiring artist trying to make a career out of artwork?
I would say study every day, all day long people's expressions–anyone you see, just study them. Always analyze what the proportions of their features are and keep that in your head for when you apply it on paper or on canvas.
What makes your art a good choice for someone looking to buy?
I will ask them what they like. What is their favorite thing? What are they impressed with? I'll try to come to a conclusion–it could be outdoors, it could be a water scene, it could be a garden scene or it could be a favorite hobby, a favorite vacation place. I've done all of these.
Tell me a little bit about restorations.
Well, that is a field I came upon when people were asking me If they could [restore aged, damaged works], and I found that I could. So, I started attending the American Institute of Conservation–as a matter of fact, we didn't form until 1985. I was there at the very beginning when they were grouping together to form an organization to meet annually. They have conventions, and I learned a lot through them, and also bought materials that I thought would advance my profession.
What is the process of restoring something?
They tell me what it needs and what it costs. I will do that, and I'll give them an option, sometimes they will think it's more than they expected to pay. Then, I will give them categories [of restoration] until they get something they are satisfied with.
What does it take to restore a piece of art?
Well, it depends. There are some works of art that have been "restored" by artists that, well, at those times weren't conservators. Sometimes they did more damage because they could not color-match the lost areas and they would try to advance their own colors. When we get it, we try to find the original work–and that's more tedious.
Anything else people should know about your work?
Just that whatever people have in mind, I would love to putt together for them. I love the challenge in doing it. I always have customers, before I finalize it, come in and I listen to their input and apply it.