Since the moment Jessi Kulow announced she was closing her custom framing business, Renegade Restore, in late July, she’s developed a list 66 projects long of last-minute requests from clients.
Kulow, 41, will move back to her native Northeastern Ohio to be closer to family. She says living and working in Austin has been difficult to maintain financially. And Austin’s rapid growth is swiftly outpacing the available resources for artists, and collectors too.
“The arts community needs assistance and the infrastructure to support the level of collecting that people want to do here. We also need more galleries and exhibition spaces,” she says.
Kulow opened her business Renegade Restore in 2019, after she spent three years as the matting and framing preparator at the Blanton Museum of Art.
She has had both private and institutional clients, including the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas, the Contemporary Austin, as well as independent efforts such as Black Mountain Project. She boasts a loyal client base, with 90% of her clients coming on a referral basis and many repeat clients.
“We have a really vibrant collecting community, lots of money here, and people want to buy art. And I’m super grateful for that. But we definitely lack the infrastructure to sustain the preservation of it, and the storage of it,” Kulow says.
Since the start of the pandemic movements like @cancelartgalleries and @changethemuseum have helped expose inequitable practices against art workers. For every high-paid museum director or celebrated curator in the spotlight, there are dozens of underpaid art workers who perform essential duties. Kulow, who knows first-hand how limiting working for arts institutions can be, says arts workers are routinely overlooked and undervalued. They are often brought on as contract workers, forcing them to pay their own insurance and making the career less sustainable.
“You wouldn’t have art on the wall, it wouldn’t be viewable, wouldn’t be enjoyable in any way if it weren’t for all of us in the background,” she says. “(We’re the people) getting art on the wall or erected in the ground.”
Typically many art handlers are artists, which gives them a deep understanding of the practice of making art, and the specialized knowledge of things like art hardware wall and wall substrates. Since every work is site specific, whether it be an outdoor installation or an installation in a historic building, Kulow says it is key for collectors to recognize limitations and not expect artists to also act as art installers.
Says Kulow: “I’m here to think about the back [of the artwork] for you.”
Recognition from curators and museum administrators is a step in the right direction, says Kulow. During her tenure as a conservation technician at the Indiana University’s Lilly Library, at every exhibition opening the curator would thank the installers by name for their contributions to the show.
“That fueled me,” she says. “I do want to be respected and valued. Because if the art has value, then what we do behind the scenes has value too.”
Kulow’s introduction to preservation started at an early age growing up in a tight knit, nomadic family. Her parents, in addition to their day jobs, spent their free time restoring historic homes around Northeastern Ohio and eventually began restoring to the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.
“I did come to preservation pretty organically, like it was part of my DNA and roots. I was born doing this,” Kulow says. “From the moment my parents got married they were flipping houses before it was ever a term.”
Kulow’s framing career began as a college freshman when she answered a classified ad for an assistant to a wedding photographer, who also owned a frame shop. Eventually the photographer taught her the framing trade.
She laughs: “Probably right about that time was when I said that I took an art Hippocratic Oath which was ‘do no harm to the art’.”
She next got a job in the conservation department of the Lily Collection, Indiana University’s rare books library. She handled delicate objects and made archival exhibition displays. She fabricated a number of creative housings for 30,000 mechanical puzzles, Slyvia Plath’s hair, 17th-century poet Lord Tennyson’s clay tobacco pipes, director John Ford’s captain’s hat, muskets and more.
Kulow came to Austin to pursue a master’s in historic preservation. Later, while working at the Blanton, she kept toying with the idea of opening up her own shop, even if the idea was more than a little daunting.
“Museum work can sometimes not be financially sustainable. And more and more people kept asking me ‘Do you do this on the side?” Kulow says. “I remember friends saying things to me like, Jessi, you’ll be surprised how much this community will support you and how there’s a need. It was so true.”
Kulow’s indoor workspace, a back room in her historic Cherrywood duplex, is methodically organized so that every tool and material is in its rightful place. Unlike a typical artists studio or workshop, there are no visible remnants of past projects. A massive work bench Kulow acquired from a door manufacturer holds projects in progress. Her home and studio are filled with artworks she has framed. Wood species, shapes and sizes vary but frames are unified by a simple elegance that warmly celebrates the artwork and showcases the care of the framer.
Unlike in a museum setting, the private sector has allowed for greater connection to her clients, says Kulow. Works she frames for individuals often go into homes and are on view year round unlike museums where works are always rotating in and out.
“I love the moment when someone comes to me and they have this thing that means so much to them. And they’re like, ‘I’m not sure what to do with it, but I want to look at it every day and I want to be able to use it.’ I love being able to provide that for them.”
Stand out projects for Kulow include a series of heavily gilded, calligraphic objects on wood (possibly Burmese Kammavaca) hung floating in succession like paragraphs of a book, a 1950s Frank Lloyd Wright fabric section with original tags and triangular patch by Austin artist Eva Claycomb for Ft. Lonesome to name a few.
When Nina Katchadourian had her retrospective at the Blanton in 2017 she gifted everyone who worked on the exhibition with one of her works from her paranormal postcard series. Kulow framed hers in a double sided frame so you could see both sides and did so for many of her coworkers. While most of the items Kulow works with are on paper, the challenge of special objects has always held an appeal for her. (More examples of her work can be seen on her Instagram @renegaderestore)
The pandemic has kept Kulow busy, with more people at home bringing out forgotten artworks or wanting cool backdrops for their Zoom calls.
“People are still collecting, they’re acquiring, they’re looking at blank walls. You know how we decorate in front of our computers because we like to see things when we’re sitting there? We’ve never thought about the space that’s behind the computer and everyone has reconfigured their lives around that now,” says Kulow
Kulow is on project 51 out of 66 before packing up and departing Austin.
“I do think there’s a bit of a calling to it. I’ve had people in my past, say, ‘You aren’t what you do.’ I am. I’m 100% what I do. My favorite thing in the whole world is fixing things.”