It’s not necessarily just what’s inside a frame that’s a work of art.

By Joohee Muromcew ∙ Photography by Cole Buckhart

Harvey Schmidt asks me to hold out my hand so I can touch the gold leaf. Each square of it rests between pages of paper and comes from a beautifully labeled box that reminds me of the Farmacia Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. Harvey picks up a leaf with the brush of his gilder’s tip and explains, “You can’t touch twenty-two-karat gold leaf with your hands. The moisture and warmth will destroy it.” Even before it reaches my fingers, the delicate leaf seizes up and disintegrates into flakes into my notebook. Such is the ephemeral finish to this old craft as practiced by Harvey, who owns Schmidt’s Custom Framing with his wife of over forty years, Mary.

The Schmidts moved to the valley from Montana in the mid-1980s, seeing in Jackson’s robust arts culture a viable market for a frame shop with an eye toward fine art framing. Their work ranges from high school diplomas to hand-carved, hand-gilded frames for important works of fine art, though Mary considers all of their work to be “custom,” as every frame is cut, joined, and finished in-house. Mary recalls an impressive Tom Gilleon painting they framed a few years ago for a collector. A massive eight-by-four-foot work, its owner desired an equally distinctive frame. Harvey gilded the entire floating frame by hand—not just the front but the whole frame, an extravagance of detail that speaks to the importance of the frame as a completion of the artwork in its owner’s eyes.

“You can’t touch twenty-two-karat gold leaf with your hands. The moisture and warmth will destroy it.”
[ Harvey Schmidt, Owner, Schmidt’s Custom Framing ]

The idea that a painting by a renowned artist can be uplifted by its frame is key to the Schmidts’ passion for their work. Both come from an arts background and spend their free time traveling the world’s art museums to study frames. Trips to the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and the Denver Art Museum have informed their eye for detail and subtlety.

About 10 percent of their customers ask for a true custom frame. The Schmidts begin by first considering the artwork itself, but also ask about the home’s interiors, the furnishings, and the lighting. Many contemporary works call for a floating frame, where the painting appears to be suspended in its frame. Other works call for more richness of detail. Harvey begins with a template made of basswood, a softer hardwood in the poplar tree family that is very stable and easy to carve. He carves a design of his own or is inspired by frame designs he keeps in a library of images. A layer of rabbit skin glue is applied, followed by up to six layers of gesso, necessary for the gold leaf to adhere to. Then a clay “bole,” either yellow or red, is applied and polished with agate burnishing stones. The bole is dampened with gilder’s “liquor” (Harvey uses a mixture of Everclear alcohol and distilled water), and then the individual sheets of twenty-two-karat gold leaf are applied with the gilder’s tip. Although twelve-karat gold is silvery in appearance, it is still gold. The leaf seems to immediately melt onto the surface of the frame, draping weightlessly into the carvings and grooves. Additional burnishing can reveal a rich patina with some of that yellow or red bole revealing itself. Harvey finishes with a lacquer or shellac, depending on the style of the artwork and frame.

For a two-by-three-foot piece of art, this kind of custom work could cost up to $4,000 and take up to two weeks just on the gilding. Pricing comes down with fewer intricacies to the frame, though even with a much simpler frame, expect to pay for the Schmidts’ careful attention to detail: perfectly sanded surfaces and corners so precisely joined and finished that they seem to disappear.

On a recent trip to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, one framed painting in its galleries in particular fascinated Harvey. He later woke up in the middle of the night when he realized it was his frame adorning this important painting in a seminal museum of western art. Harvey could only smile and think to himself, “Nice frame!”

Schmidt’s Custom Framing, 307/733-2306

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