Legacy art returns to CSKT after devastating fire

ST. IGNATIUS — More than a year after a devastating fire destroyed the Tribal Museum, an expert returns carefully restored heirloom works of art, saved through extensive work.

When arson tore through “The People’s Center” in September 2020, it was not just a huge loss, but a huge heartbreak, as priceless badges and artwork seemed to be lost forever.

But this week, thanks to the incredible talent of restorer Joe Abbrescia, eight paintings were brought back to life and returned to the Three Chiefs Cultural Center. Using a meticulous process of chemical cleaning by hand, the artworks, some of which date back to more than 1901, are once again ready for display.

“It varied depending on how hot a particular room was,” Abbrescia told me Thursday. “Or you know, some of them were actually, like, knocked off the wall, so you have impact damage on different things.”

“But you know, each piece you take as an individual piece and do what’s necessary for that particular piece.”

In addition to inch-by-inch cleaning, the paintings were also protected with fresh foam supports and beautiful frames from a Kalispell store.

And with the restoration of art, a restoration of tribal history.


“Every day I walk to work or I walk into the office at work, they were hanging in this rotunda, a beautiful rotunda, and you look at them every day and it has become a part of our daily life at work,” recalls Marie Torosian, director of programs at the Three Chief Cultural Center. “And then to know that they were damaged in the fire or they were lost. And then Joe’s work and expertise went into them and brought them back to life, it just makes us happy . It’s just happy to see them coming home and they can be seen by everyone and shared by their families, you know, can come here and see them again.”

Not all tables could be saved. Abbrescia showed a piece that was badly damaged by heat and fire right down to the paint layer. But Torosian tells me it will be saved and placed under glass so that future visitors can see it too.

“You know it’s an honor for me to do this, you know? To be a guy who can save them and give them new life,” Abbrescia said. “And then being an artist’s son. It’s someone’s legacy as an artist. So if I can keep something from going to waste, that means a lot.”

Everything comes with a story, connects to who made them, who wore them, who held them before, and now you know they have that story of how they survived the fire and came back to home,” Torosian noted.

The restored paintings should soon be exhibited at the Three Chiefs Cultural Center.

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