Fayette artist finds joy in art restoration and creation

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:46 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Tom Yancey sits in his art studio, located on the second floor of Fayette's oldest building, on April 15.

FAYETTE — Thomas Yancey has a mermaid. She’s a blonde, and her name is Maxine. She’s light aqua in color and shimmers in the right light. She used to frequent a bar in Yancey’s hometown of Fayette but now hangs from the ceiling of his art studio.

Yancey is an artist and a musician whose studio is on the town square, on the second floor of Fayette’s oldest building. The steep, winding steps leading to his studio creak with every footfall. The wooden floors are original to the building, Yancey thinks, and he can see the first floor through the cracks between them.

If you go

What: Works by Thomas Yancey are part of the permanent collection at the Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art. Two special exhibits at the museum now are “The World Around Him: The Watercolors of J.R. Hamil,” and “The Lithographs of Charles Banks Wilson.”

When: Gallery hours are 1:30-4:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; special exhibits through May 7

Where: Central Methodist University, 411 Central Methodist Square, Fayette, MO 65248

Admission: Free

For more information: go to

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Maxine the mermaid, made of plaster gauze and cardboard, hangs above the clutter of artwork that includes original paintings, sketches and sculptures. Before her homecoming, she used to hang above the bar at Mack's.

On the walls of his studio are prints of some of Yancey’s favorite pieces that have been sold or hung in the Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art at Central Methodist University, where he used to teach. Mixed in among them are pieces by his former students and paintings and frames he is in the process of restoring.

I taught "a combination of art and music, which I loved. I didn’t really consider it work," said Yancey, a professor emeritus who retired in 1995 after 37 years of teaching. "I woke up every morning and shared my creative knowledge with students.”

Since then, he has focused on restoring art for the Ashby-Hodge Gallery, which has five shows a year, and for private clients who have paintings or portraits that have been damaged and need a professional’s touch.

Yancey has been an artist since he was 6, when his teacher set up an easel for him in the corner of the classroom. He recalled sitting in church and drawing the backs of people’s heads, later identifying them by their hair or hats.

Yancey, who owns and plays a restored 1928 Steinway grand piano, concentrated on music in college, obtaining his master’s degree at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music with doctoral work at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. While he works, he listens to the radio, often KBIA/91.3 FM, for the classical music.

“I’m in another world up here because I have all my big loves. I’ve got Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Beethoven and art," he said. "I find myself floating.” 

Yancey is easily pictured, sitting at his easel, restoring a family portrait with music blaring and his table of tools to his side. He has the excitement of a man just starting out, but he has a seasoned taste in art and music. When he talks about the paintings he has restored, he is respectful.

“That’s the thrilling thing about (restoration) painting, you feel like you’re a physician or maybe a heart surgeon," he said. "You bring a painting to life. I really enjoy that aspect of it.”

The line between the preserver and creator of art is thin here, as Yancey will practically jump from every corner of his studio to eagerly show a painting he is particularly proud of, whether it's his or another artist’s. Some of the paintings he restores have been damaged to the point where whole sections need to be repainted. Yancey said that being an artist helps him reconstruct what was there and to stay true to the artist’s intentions.

“I have to improvise, I call it, just like when you play a jazz piece at the piano,” he said.

Yancey has never advertised his restoration business and works only by word of mouth. He has lost count of the number of paintings he has restored, but some of them can be found at the Ashby-Hodge Gallery.

His original works can also be found there as part of the permanent gallery. After each showing, Yancey busily goes through the gallery to restore the paintings. It's almost like he's attached to every painting and wants to keep them alive and at their best.

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