Vigas, nichos, canales, parapets, plaster walls. These elements make Taos’ houses unique in the United States. Yet the soft and mottled appearance of plaster that provides so much atmosphere is notoriously difficult to repair when damaged. Jamie Ash, who has been a plaster colorist for 20 years, is changing that.
It started in 2008 when a flood left a newly finished custom home badly water damaged. Replastering would cost thousands. Blame and threats of legal action ensued. The contractor asked Ash, who had colored the walls, if she could help. Nervous but willing, Ash used her artistic eye to hide the water stains, satisfying the contractor and client for a fraction of the cost. But she wasn’t satisfied and knew her skills could improve.
“It was a challenge,” she said. “I knew that what was usually done – one thin coat of plaster – would show. I had to find something different.”
She has done a lot of perfecting since then. As a working artist, Ash uses acrylics to layer color, so she started applying numerous layers of materials compatible with plaster to repair it. She says the way plaster looks “consists of color, texture, pattern, sheen and touch. I aim to get those right. When I do that, no one can tell there was ever a problem.”
When I visited a job site recently, she had a table set up with materials and tools I recognized: Dixie cups, Popsicle sticks,powdered plaster and artists’ brushes. But some were new to me: a catalyst mini blade, custom-cut Bondo scrapers and many small bags of ochers, umbers and oxides. Ash says “rough” plaster takes more time to match because of the raised texture
created by a “floated” finish. She strains Structo-Lite, a commonly used plaster product, to capture the perlite that gives the rough texture. She then places the perlite “very carefully so it looks random.”
Is this expensive? She says cost varies a lot, depending on the damage. “I’ll visit a house, discuss each damaged area, then give my clients a detailed list describing each place and the price to fix it,” Ash says.
“But in general, I am much less expensive than replastering entire walls.”
Ian Forsberg, a general contractor, notes, “You can do a repair like channeling through the plaster to add an outlet and Jamie comes in and makes it seamless. This is tremendous. She’s able to address anything clients will come up with.”
Lee Stanford – of Stanford Built LLC. – has worked with Jamie about 10 years. “She brings in her little table and her potions and she makes herself disappear, like the cracks she’s repairing. Yet if the owner engages her in conversation, she’s so charming, super pleasant and brilliant. And clean and tidy. I walk into a house when she’s finished and I say, ‘Now where was that problem?’ She nails it every time. I can’t figure out how. I’ve seen my plaster guys hang out and watch her, but they couldn’t figure it out. No one knows how she does it.”
Part of Ash’s magic may be her focused presence. Karen Lievense calls her a “magician.” The walls of Lievense’s condo had a mottled diamond finish – a “very expensive wall treatment” – with major water damage. “Jamie is good enough to work in any city in the country. We’re very lucky that someone as professional with her talent and skill chooses Taos.”
I asked Ash a question I ask other fine artists: “How do you know when you’re done?” She says, “Oh, that’s easy. I stand back and look at the wall. If I can see where the patch is, I’m not done.”
She knows that if she doesn’t see the patch, neither will her clients, nor will anyone else walking into the house. “But it’s the client’s opinion that counts, so we always look at each area together. I don’t consider myself done until the client is happy. My job is returning the pleasure of seeing how beautiful the house is. When you live with the effects of damage, eventually that’s the only thing you see.
Damage comes forward. Beauty recedes. Take the blemishes away and you have your lovely house back.”