An instant original

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 16, 2000

&uot;You can’t take a tour of a house in Natchez without the name Chris Landers coming up.&uot;

The words – spoken more as fact than flattery – are those of Hal Garner, a local interior designer who often finds himself working alongside Landers on restoration projects.

A self-described &uot;restoration painter,&uot; Landers has steadily built a name for himself since he first began using paint to simulate fine wood grain in 1975.

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Since then, Landers’ craftsmanship has expanded to include other faux bois techniques, including using paint to give the appearance of marble.

But, it’s decorative crown molding – or frieze work – that Landers is inspecting on a Monday morning at the circa 1870 Merrill House on Commerce Street.

Decades of paint have drowned the intricate &uot;egg and dart&uot; design that was popular in 19th century homes. Landers now meticulously peels away the layers, one by one, careful not to damage the delicate plaster.

&uot;I’m always interested to find out what the original paint looked like in these old houses,&uot; Landers says. &uot;Most of the time it was very elegant.&uot;

And Landers should know. He began helping his father, also a painter, as a teenager. Still, Landers says much of what he does today is self-taught through study, practice and a lot of trial and error.

Landers’ schedule is full of projects, many of which are novel. Most recently, a local historic homeowner commissioned Landers to paint her wooden mantle to resemble green onyx.

&uot;I knew if I had a photo in front of me, I could simulate green onyx,&uot; Landers says.

Landers says he thinks of all his jobs as challenges, because each presents unique circumstances.

&uot;I never do any two jobs exactly the same,&uot; he says.

Perhaps that uniqueness is what makes Landers’ work so popular. He has a difficult time recalling all the houses he has helped to restore.

&uot;It might be easier to name the ones I haven’t worked on,&uot; he says with a small smile.

And his work speaks for itself. Landers says people from Columbus to New Orleans have requested his talents, and business is steadily growing.

Landers’ wife, Denise, who coordinates her husband’s busy schedule, said she was forced to cancel an advertisement in the phone directory’s yellow pages because of the overwhelming number of calls.

Denise also assists her husband at his work by plotting out floor designs which Landers then fills in with paint to create floor cloths – wood that is sometimes painted to look like an Oriental rug.

Landers also maintains a crew of experienced painters to help him with his &uot;everyday&uot; paint jobs.

But it is the detailed marble imitations and wood graining that have become Landers’ signature.

In fact, many admirers, including his wife, have encouraged Landers to sign his pieces – a few of which he has for those who look closely enough.

A closer look at Landers’ pieces will also reveal the subtle chips, scratches and knots that he intentionally adds to achieve the appearance of age.

Creating that certain patina was one of the most difficult techniques to learn, Landers says. Too much or too little and the piece loses its believability.

&uot;That’s the very critical part – striking that balance,&uot; Landers says.

But, Landers also has the help of special – and some not-so-special – tools to transfer his talent onto wood.

One of his brushes, made from the hair of a badger, can cost as much as $150. Others, like the duck feather he uses to create the veined likeness of marble, are donated by local hunters.

Most of the tools, however, are the same ones used by craftsman for hundreds of years.

&uot;Over time they developed the tools and techniques they used, and they just did a good job,&uot; he says.

&uot;I haven’t been able to improve on what they did then,&uot; Landers says humbly.

But, many of Landers’ fans wouldn’t agree.

&uot;He has the knack that separates good from wonderful,&uot; Garner says, watching the praise roll off Landers like water from his oiled paintbrush.