An Artisan Brings History Home By D.A. Garfinkle
"The color of my house is kind of a cross between terra cotta and mashed pumpkin," the artisan told me. Just for fun I thought I'd see if I could find my destination without looking for the numbers. No problem. Amid the traditionally coordinated blues and greens of the Hillcrest neighborhood the unique hue of orange turned out to be pleasantly energizing, refreshing---and impossible to miss. The 1926 home (itself a combination of Craftsman and Spanish influences) almost looked as if it had grown up green out of the lawn and ripened there. Emma Wright, of The Wright Touch, said she developed the color by accident---a happy accident. She found her calling in much the same way. Nineteen years ago Wright was working in the UCSD bike shop when a team of ornamental painters who traveled by bicycle asked her if she would join them on their next trip to keep the bikes in repair. She couldn't resist the adventure. One day they were short a hand, so Emma stepped in to give painting a try, and her great aptitude was revealed. The artisans gave her on-the-job training. Experience working with them on such projects as the Archbishop's Mansion and the Zen Center Guest House in San Francisco eventually lead her to accept an invitation to Sweden to train with masters in historic restoration. The grand 18th and 19th century structures of Stockholm offered fertile training ground indeed. The restoration of the Royal Drama Theatre, the National Museum and the Grand Hotel among many others contain evidence of Wright's emerging talent. With these historical projects she developed a special skill and fondness for intricate stenciling. Some patterns, including elements of gold leaf and imagery from flowers to pheasants, require as many as 16 separate overlays to complete. Now, reestablished in her native San Diego since 1991, Emma takes great pride in the fact that she is recognized by her peers and called on locally for major restorations. She is pre-approved by the San Diego Historical Society to wield her skills on such landmarks as the La Valencia, places she marveled at as a child. She also commands a growing following of residential clients who effusively praise her work. Wright's own home, however, is the best showcase of her abilities yet and I am about to take the tour. From the "waxed" walls and ornamental ceiling details to the many glazes and finishes of various woods, the treatments and textures are coordinated with an instinctive sense of tasteful restraint. Her style suits the charm of the funky, old, built-in conveniences that fold out from the walls, the ornately tiled fireplace and vintage lamps. Emma especially enjoys homes in which every room has a separate flavor. This is a fortunate thing. With influences from the previous eight decades her house invites the challenge. She tells me tales of scraping away ancient linoleum to reveal hardwood floors and tackling ceiling panels that camouflaged a decrepit and dangerous heating system. Matching the proper technique to the existing architectural features is one of Emma's many strengths. When she describes all the work that went into the mouldings alone I wonder that her obsession may be extreme. But when she shows me the finished product next to the areas that have yet to be made over there is no comparison. The beauty of these otherwise simple surfaces is worth every layer. Her unique aesthetic exudes a warmth and flow that is rare in the company of eclecticism. Faux finishing "…isn't just a look, it's a feeling." She says. Wright strives for depth and movement in her finishes and a sensuous feel of textures. As I run my hand over "painted" surfaces that even on closest inspection replicate wood, marble, stone, tortoise shell and Venetian plaster I have to ask "how did you do that?!" With a wide grin she eagerly opens her display case and begins pulling out large sample cards. I learn that many of the effects are achieved by applying substances that react with base layers and develop their finished characteristics over time, much in the manner of a photograph.
Even a veteran such as Emma Wright is astounded and delighted by the new products her suppliers are inventing these days. She loves to watch her medium evolve. The array of materials, techniques and tools available to artisans in her field have expanded enormously in the 19 years that she has been practicing her art. Several of the companies that concoct these high tech glazes, "plasters" and polymers require prospective buyers to take classes in each product's use before being allowed to purchase it! Wright is rare thing in our time - an American trained in the European guild tradition, a journeyman artisan who is passionate about the details. Recently, she has teamed up with her perfect complement---the self-taught creative artist Rhonda Chase. "We're the Felix and Oscar of the faux-finishing world" Emma laughs. She is very excited about the collaborative potential of the new partnership and is looking forward to taking on a greater diversity of projects. She loves the thought of having even more to offer her clients. Working closely with each client is part of the joy. She intones with pride the motto of her mentors "Your environment, our job". "When you hire The Wright Touch I am who you get, not a team of assistants" Emma says. "Now with Rhonda Chase joining me our clients have the security of two journeymen on the job." San Diego is fortunate that Emma Wright stumbled into her niche and brought her skills back home. She simply loves her work, meticulously laboring to bring out the beauty in every detail. She looks forward to growing with her industry and contributing to the grandeur and charm of private homes and public spaces. She takes pride in being part of an honored tradition. "Even the Egyptians used faux finishes, particularly the woods, because they were so rare." she explains. And why not, the genuine materials were just as hard (and heavy) to obtain then as now, even when Pharaohs had slave labor to burn. But Pharaoh, with his royal artisans and all, didn't have custom-made, hand-painted, "marble" surfboards lining the rafters in the palace garage. A certain "mashed pumpkin" colored house in Hillcrest does.