Wielding her scapel-like knife with the delicacy of a surgeon, the Japanese artisan gently trimmed a silk patch no larger than a crumb. She and her colleagues at the Oka Bokkodo studio in Kyoto were steeped in a six-week odyssey across the surface of a Japanese scroll painting, filling in thousands of tiny holes that have marred the 600-year-old work. The scroll, owned by the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, is one of the museum's 40 scroll paintings being rejuvenated under an art restoration project to preserve pieces of Japan's cultural heritage held by museums and galleries around the world. The project is supported by the Japanese government and a private art foundation in Japan. Restoration of a single artwork can take a year or more and run tens of thousands of dollars. Few Americans or Europeans are trained to do the painstaking restoration, but the Japanese and American curators hope the project will lead to a center for training and conservation in the United States.
Most of the Freer scrolls selected for restoration under the program have already returned home and are on display in the current Freer exhibition "The Life of a Japanese Painting," which runs through September 29, 1996.