Restoration artist Dego shines light from Parliament Hill to the Saatchi Gallery

November 27, 2012

Lifestyle & Culture

Stained glass in the Peace Tower. Photo by paige_eliz (Flickr).

People rush down the sidewalk on Wellington Street in Ottawa’s downtown core with their shoulders shrugged up around their ears. The colder weather this past week has turned the pedestrian’s gaze toward the ground, and against the backdrop of grey sky, the city’s tall buildings look down on the lonely view of the backs of people’s heads.

And so it goes that without knowing, hundreds of people pass by the Peace Tower and don’t notice the work of Detlef Gotzens, a world-renowned artist and restoration conservationist.

Gotzens was one of the finalists seeking a commission in the Bronson Avenue Renewal project. The project involves replacing aging underground infrastructure and street landscaping initiatives. The city hopes that public art will help re-invent the street character of Bronson Avenue. In the same week that Gotzens found out he wasn’t successful in winning the commission for the Bronson Renewal project, he heard from Saatchi Gallery in London – where one of his paintings, Rational Space with Winter Sky placed second in a competition and will soon be hanging amongst some of great contemporary artists of our time.

Because the Quebec-based artist is so good at what he does, you might never know he’s touched the buildings he has worked on at all. But inside the memorial chamber of the Peace Tower, the light streams again through stained glass windows thanks to the Gotzens, who was commissioned to clean, repair and generally restore John A. Pearson’s original, century-old mosaic.

The pieces of glass are fused together with lead in a fashion so intricate that it took Gotzens two years to remove the panes entirely while carrying out the painstaking restoration of each portion of glass. Apart from the sunlight filtering through, there is no hint that Gotzens has been here.

Ottawa is not the only place where Gotzens’ talent are scattered. They can be found throughout historical buildings around the world.

From Cologne, Germany where he apprenticed as a teenager in the stained glass studio of Jacob Melchoir, to St. Patrick’s Basilica and St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, Gotzens’ craft of restoration has allowed the sun to shine again through iconic images in coloured glass, just as the original artists intended.

Last week, Gotzens learned that one of his own paintings, Rational Space with Winter Sky will soon be hanging in the Saatchi Gallery in London.

It’s a departure from the restoration of the work to which he’s devoted 40 years of his life. He signs his original work “Dego” – the syllables are a fusion of pieces taken from his first and last names.

“It’s just easier to say,” he said during a recent interview at a coffee shop in the Byward Market.

He’s friendly and smiles often while describing an ancient Roman mosaic floor in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.

“It’s like the walls are talking to you – I can’t even properly put it into words,” said Dego, an art magazine on the table beside his empty coffee cup.

“I started making paintings and drawings when I was very young,” he said. “My grandmother recognized it right away. She was the only one — my parents didn’t want me to be starving.”

But his decision to begin apprenticing in stained glass was, in the end, both a logical and economical decision for the artist, who grew up in Cologne, a city with no shortage of buildings to restore.

After four decades of working with glass, he said he still feels its magical properties.

“People always have a tendency to be drawn to glass. They want to get closer to it, touch it. It’s mystical,” he said. “That’s what draws me to glass, too. The penetration of light, how it reacts to light. It’s the only medium that really does that.”

Dego said restoration is about science and philosophy.

Glass is influenced by the elements, so Dego discusses the chemistry behind its interaction with the environment. The craftsman also has to be dedicated to knowing everything about the original piece and the expressive intentions of the original artist.

In respecting these factors, Dego said a restoration artist can successfully preserve an artwork’s history.

“How much do you impose yourself? How do you carry out interventions with the original?” he asked. “How do you work with technology and media to keep it original? You don’t impose yourself.”

This is something that Dego says institutions are beginning to come around to in Canada.

“You can’t take care of the future if you don’t appreciate the past,” he said.

In 2009, he broke from the profession of stained glass restoration in pursuit of another calling he first recognized as a boy – painting and sculpting. He said it was a gamble to leave a solid career for other artistic forms.

Dego says the philosophy that guided much of his restoration work infuses his own paintings and sculptures. He is dedicated, he said, to portraying things as they truly are.

“Artists are the mirrors of society,” he said.  Dego paintings pictured in a book of his works all seem to have light shining through colour.

He is also strongly influenced by nature. His submission to the Saatchi is a landscape representation of the horizon seen outside the windows of his studio near St. Chrysostome,

Pointing to another piece of his work, he says: “That’s me walking up the stairs. You don’t know where you are going, you just go there.”

Dego does know that in a few weeks he’ll be going to London for the unveiling of Rational Space, Winter Sky at Saatchi, and next year he would like to plan to do an exhibit in his hometown of Cologne.

Dego said, “My mother has never seen a show of my work and she’s 80. I will do it for my mother.”

He’s also in talks with a Gallery in The Hague and would like to pursue various other permanent exhibits in Europe. It’s been a rapid rise after three years in the business, but Dego said good art isn’t always just about inspiration, it’s also about hard work and commitment.

Dego’s prize winning painting, Rational Space with Winter Sky

About Emily Murtha

I'm more evolved because I don't have wisdom teeth. Running, Kickboxing, Back Seat Driving, Baking. My favourite thing about Ottawa is that it feels like a hometown, even though it's a big city.

View all posts by Emily Murtha


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