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State Capitol Artisan Earns Michigan Heritage Award

By Scott Pohl, WKAR


LANSING, (MI) – Every year, the Michigan State University Museum recognizes artists who sustain traditional arts practices in the state with the Michigan Heritage Awards, given at the Great Lakes Folk Festival.

This year, one of the winners is the state capitol building's master decorative painter and preservationist.

WKAR's Scott Pohl recently spent some time with Bill Finch at the building he's lovingly cared for since the early 1980's.

AUDIO: If you've been here at the state capital building, especially since the major restoration project in the 90's, you've seen Bill Finch's handiwork. Chances are, though, that you haven't seen him. He starts his workday at 6 a.m., so he can do most of his work when the building's occupants in the house and senate aren't around.

Out of all the space in this cavernous structure, Finch has set up his private workspace in an unusual spot: the attic over the state senate chamber. Here, he gets the natural light he cherishes.

"To match colors," Finch explains, "we have a skylight, which allows us to have a natural white light, not influenced by fluorescent or incandescent."

This is a man for whom that sort of detail is crucial. Colors fade, so when Finch worked on the capital building's huge renovation, he searched for original colors under trimwork in his quest for authenticity.

During this visit, he's working on a stencil that will be used to replicate the original mosaic-like painting of some decorative trim. He uses flexible, transparent plastic so the pattern can be repeated in curved spaces and in corners.

Finch takes me to a state house meeting room where the pattern has already been used. A hoist carries him to the ceiling 16 feet above the floor. One interesting detail he shows me is how the pattern on the ceiling doesn't stop at the edge of a speaker cover, but rather continues over the speakers' surface.

"That's my decision to do that," Finch says, "and I prefer that, so that the design itself is not broken up by those essential technical things that have come along since the original was done."

Stopping by the capital rotunda, Finch points to what was re-done when the capital was refurbished.

"Everything, essentially, that you're looking at is new paint during the restoration," Finch states, "with exception of the allegorical paintings, which are on canvas, and the festoons that are on the dark red walls. The red was painted in around the festoons, but much of the artwork and the festoons themselves are original. They've been up out of harm's way."

Finch is much more than just a painter. Replacing plaster in first floor hallways meant replicating a pattern that had been carved into the plaster during the original installation. Unhappy with how things were turning out, he decided to make his own brush.

"The track that I would leave in the new plaster had to mimic exactly the original plaster," Finch says, "and that required me to take some bristles from my wife's hearth broom, and it replicated it to a T. I can show you where they are, but you can't find them, and I figure I did my job right when you can't find my repair."

Finch is also a woodworker. He designed beautiful cabinets to hold televisions in the lobbies outside the house and senate. And he also designed and did all the carving on a 28 foot long cabinet holding historical artifacts in a room used for tour groups.

Bill Finch is in his mid 60's now, and he's concerned about the future. He thinks proper maintenance of the capitol building would prevent the need for another restoration project like the one that cost $58,000,000, but he worries budget constraints will eat into that maintenance. He has just one apprentice, and he admits to losing sleep over what will happen when he's no longer working.

On a personal level, he's not sure what to make of the attention that comes with the Michigan Heritage Award.

"I do like what I do, and what has been done, to be appreciated in that people don't just destroy it," Finch says. "I'm not one to promote myself. So, it is a little uncomfortable, and at the same time, I hope that it brings notoriety to this building because of what I do here."

The Michigan Heritage Award ceremony honoring Bill Finch is at 3 p.m. Saturday on the Dance Stage at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing. Les Ross Senior of Marquette will also be honored for his Finnish "lumberjack" style of harmonica playing.

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