Matthew Szczepanowski has worked out of a shabby former auto-parts store in Franklintown for 24 years. He is 53, with a kind, weathered face, wiry gray beard, and long-fingered, calloused hands.
He has known his share of suffering. You can see it in his unguarded eyes, the blue-gray of a summer sky just before rain. The worst was in December, when his gifted son, a physicist, died under mysterious circumstances in his apartment near Washington.
There is no full recovery from such a loss. But Szczepanowski is not a completely broken man. Given the nature of his work, it would be nice to believe that his heart could mend.
For Szczepanowski is a man who walks on gold dust and repairs the broken wings of angels.
He is an art conservator and restorer. Since 1983, two years after he moved here from his native Poland, Szczepanowski (pronounced sheh-pan-OFF-skee) has been putting in 12- and 14-hour days in his studio on Callowhill Street, where he and his assistants Stefan Konwinski and Paul Efremoff repair sacred statues, rebuild broken bits of baroque picture frames, and regild everything from church altars to ballroom chandeliers.
"I use a lot of gold leaf," he says. "Acres, actually."
Two weeks ago, he completed a three-year project restoring 16 pieces of French Empire furniture from Strawberry Mansion in Fairmount Park.
The suite - 10 chairs, a pair of divans, two armed sofas, a harp bench, and a circular upholstered piece called a borne - belonged to Civil War Gen. George Cadwalader. The Committee of 1926, which maintains and manages Strawberry Mansion, helped hire Szczepanowski three years ago after interviewing several other conservators.
He works in obscurity behind a plain storefront, but in artistic circles, he is known as a master gilder. A member of the committee said, "His reputation is outstanding."
The work, Szczepanowski says, seems almost mystical. He feels as though he travels back centuries to the European ateliers, where furniture was carved and sculptures molded and holy figures puzzled from mosaics, studying the stone and wood and enamel and knowing when the artist was inspired or exhausted, then inhabiting that creative moment and, with potions made of rabbit-skin glue and tools made from the hair of squirrel tails, working his magic.
"I take something that was in poor shape and bring it new life. In a sense, it is a mission. We have to preserve the beauty of the past," he says, passing the chalky skeleton of a Louis XV table jutting from the wall in his Philadelphia studio.
The table belongs to a prominent Philadelphian, who, like many of Szczepanowski's wealthy clients, guards his privacy as fiercely as his investments in art.
In the conservator's hands, a shattered punch bowl that once belonged to George Washington was returned to nearly perfect form. He has restored the death mask of Isaac Newton. He also does original sculpture and painting, inspired by the materials he uses in his conservation. "When I'm working on mosaics, I use mosaic. When I'm gilding, I use gold leaf."
During the first months after his son's death, he says, he walked the streets, despondent, unable to work. "I was practically howling. Of all the stuff that can happen to human beings, losing a child - the pain is so unbearable."
At some point, however, he surrendered to the mourning. "You let it flow through you. And that's really liberating, honestly."
He has found solace in his faith, the intense, meditative work of his restoration projects, the soothing company of his wife, daughter and two stepchildren, and the indulgence of his alter-ego. (He paraglides and is working towards a black belt in karate - plus a third-place trophy from the 2004 World Tan Soo Do Karate championship.)
And during the last few weeks, he has started painting again: a Pieta-like portrait of an agonized man holding a lifeless body draped across his knees.
It rests on a massive easel in the center of the airy room on the third floor of his building. A punching bag hangs from the ceiling. His marmalade cat, Rudy - a gift from his son - pads along the coarse, paint-spattered floorboards to his litter box.
"It's my kingdom here," Szczepanowski says.
He sells about six or seven pieces a year through an agent in Virginia. If his own work does not bring him much fame, he says, he has carved out a bit of immortality nonetheless.
"When I restore a piece, there is a connectiveness with the artist who created it originally - a connection to all the moments of history during the time it was created, and to the people who owned it and valued it," he says. By giving it a future, he says, "sometimes, you feel like almost a ghost, overcoming the boundaries of time and space."
It would make a nice parallel, he says, to think that his heart, like a broken stone angel, could be repaired, that he could heal himself with the resurrective powers of his art.
"But honestly, I don't think I have this association," he says. Rather, he thinks about the limitations of even a master restorer. "Once a treasure is broken, you can repair it. But it's never the same."