Retired Menasha art teacher finds new calling

By Jean Peerenboom | For The Compass | April 20, 2016

Bruce Nufer restores statues, other religious artwork for area parishes

MENASHA — Former art teacher Bruce Nufer is continuing to create beauty even as he settles into retirement.

A member of St. Mary Parish in Menasha, he has repaired, repainted and restored many of the statues, crucifixes and other artwork for the parish. His next project will be restoring three life-sized statues at St. Patrick Parish, also in Menasha.

Bruce Nufer carefully sands the cheek of a statue depicting Jesus. The statue of Mary and Jesus is Nufer’s most recent religious restoration project.m (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Bruce Nufer carefully sands the cheek of a statue depicting Jesus. The statue of Mary and Jesus is Nufer’s most recent religious restoration project.m (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“When I was at Mass at St. Mary’s, I would look up at the Stations of the Cross and think they were in such horrible condition,” said Nufer, who taught art and art history at Neenah High School for almost 30 years. “The paintings in the front were darker than those in the back. I reasoned it was due to years of being exposed to incense and burning candles.”

He also took note of the condition of the altar paintings at the front of the church.

Soon, his friend, Rollie Hebeler, music director at St. Mary School, asked him to serve on the buildings and grounds committee. “Once I was on the committee,” he said, “I regularly brought up the need to restore the artwork and learned others had noticed this, too. This led to having the works professionally cleaned and the paintings retouched.”

Next, he zeroed in on the large statue of St. Francis that stood in the back of church. The paint was chipped. “I said to the committee, ‘Give me a shot at it.’”

Bruce Nufer, a member of St. Mary Parish in Menasha, uses sandpaper to clean and repair a statue of the Blessed Mother and infant Jesus in the garage of his Menasha home. Nufer, a retired art teacher, said repairing religious artwork is his way of giving back to the church. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Bruce Nufer, a member of St. Mary Parish in Menasha, uses sandpaper to clean and repair a statue of the Blessed Mother and infant Jesus in the garage of his Menasha home. Nufer, a retired art teacher, said repairing religious artwork is his way of giving back to the church. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

It was necessary to take every scrap of paint off before he repainted it. Usually, he works with just acrylic paint, but this statue was so big, he used a combination of spray paint and acrylics.

“I don’t think I would have gotten into this without that project,” Nufer said. Now, it is starting to feel like the start of a small business, as more projects come forward.

In the summer of 2014, Nufer undertook restoring the church’s Nativity set, which was “looking shabby.” Working in the church basement, he restored about 35 separate pieces to spruce up the aging Nativity set.

Since then, he tackled the many crucifixes in the church and school. “I’ve never seen so many crucifixes outside of a monastery,” he joked.

“The difficult part is finding the right material to repair them. Some of the older ones were made of plaster mixed with horse hair,” a technique used in the past. “I needed something stable that would blend in,” he explained.

One of the crucifixes had hung in the St. Mary School gymnasium. It got hit by a volleyball and knocked into about 45 pieces, he said. He took it all apart and reassembled it.

“With some of the crucifixes, I couldn’t find all the parts,” he continued. “One was missing one of Jesus’ legs. I drilled it and put in a bamboo skewer and built a leg around it from different materials.”

An angel that stood outside of St. Mary’s for many years had gotten pretty beaten up by the weather. Nufer repaired and repainted it. Today, the angel has been moved inside to protect it from the elements.

From his garage, Bruce Nufer spends hours repairing religious artwork from local parishes. Nufer said his interest in repairing religious art was piqued when he read about the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
From his garage, Bruce Nufer spends hours repairing religious artwork from local parishes. Nufer said his interest in repairing religious art was piqued when he read about the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“This is my way of giving to the church,” he said. The work for St. Mary/St. John has been as a volunteer.

Then he got a call from Mary Krueger, the pastoral leader at St. Patrick Parish, about the three life-sized statues in need of repair. “I had noticed them when I went in there to buy a Christmas tree,” he said. “Now, they are hiring me to restore them.”

“I like to work outdoors in my garage, however it has been rather cold lately,” he said so the start of the project was delayed until late April.

His interest in the restoration work was piqued in the 1990s when he read about the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. “I was fascinated by this. It showed the technicians with Q-tips doing a square inch at a time. It would take a day or so to do one square inch. It was amazing and then to think about what it took to do the original painting …”

Though he always had an interest in art, Nufer did not always dream of a career in the art field. “Fresh out of high school, I was not a college-bound person,” he said. “I found that every part-time job I ever had, it started out as one thing and ended up in art in some way. I always had an eye for it and an interest in it. I was fascinated by cartooning.”

He started working in radio and went to “radio school” before working for a station in Waupaca. He worked out of New London, where he met his wife, Kathy. “She convinced me I was smart enough to go to college,” he said. “I decided to go after what I was most passionate about – art.

“I found I loved teaching it,” he said. He retired from the Neenah School District in 2011 and worked part-time at St. Mary Central High School (now St. Mary Catholic High School) and part-time at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. After two years, he retired completely.

“One of the fun things with the St. Mary’s position,” he said, “was a project I worked on with one of the other art teachers. We created a mosaic for the Performing Arts Center. They wanted a mosaic of a saint for the theater,” he said. “We included the students in the project.”

“These things sort of naturally happen to me. One thing leads to another,” he said. “Now, the first thing I notice is the condition of paintings and sculptures everywhere I go.”

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