By Elaine Wolff
"You're going to reduce 50 years of business into 1,200 words?" Harold Kempfer asked. The question might have stung more if it didn't come from a man who has built his business empire by capturing entire eras in column capitals, friezes, and cartouches. Kempfer, who has operated the deceptively ramshackle Harold's Art & Plaster Craft on South Roosevelt since 1959, has worked on the restoration of historical buildings throughout San Antonio and the U.S., including the Majestic Theatre, Municipal Auditorium, Sunset Station, and the lobby of the Gunter Hotel (his personal favorite), filling in gaps in the physical history with custom molds, plaster, and paint. Harold's also sells painting supplies, from oils to easels, operates a frame shop, and offers weekly classes for amateur and professional artists.
A slight man of less-than-average height, Kempfer has a tendency to walk away as he talks to you, forcing you to trail behind him from framing counter to paint counter to classroom and back. He flits to and fro like a dragonfly over water, his watery blue eyes alighting momentarily to answer a customer's question, or to tell his framer to get to work. "I don't know why you'd want to write a story about me," he says, half seriously. "Write about my teachers. They're the best in town."
That assertion would be hotly debated by, say, the faculty of the Southwest School of Art & Craft, and it's apparent from the classically composed portraits and floral still lifes resting on easels throughout the shop and classrooms that Harold's is not fertile territory for contemporary art. But painter Lloyd Walsh frequents Harold's because, Walsh says, Harold knows paint better than anyone else in San Antonio. "I've had blending lessons, chemistry lessons," says Walsh, all impromptu. Harold also feeds him lunch occasionally from the meal he has prepared daily for his staff, the majority of whom are well over retirement age. "I'm part restauranteur," Kempfer laughs.
When I mention to the counterperson that I'm waiting for Walsh, she is visibly pleased and tells me, "He comes in at 12 usually, after he teaches."
"Forever," answers one woman, when I ask the room how long they have been studying at Harold's. "Twenty years," answers another, Edith Craig, who works with the regional artist consortium that keeps Terminal A at the San Antonio airport well-stocked with landscapes and representational paintings.
"He opens the studio to all kinds of artists," says Dunn-Harr. "Harold's fabulous to work with; he carries supplies you can't get other places. He saves us a lot of money. Plus, he's like an encyclopedia."
"He's a timid soul," adds Craig. "We gave him a big party for his 70th birthday ... We had to drag him out of the back room."
Harold's back rooms are where the architectural magic happens. In a low-ceilinged space with rough-hewn limestone floors, empty molds rest on tables and the ground. The profile of the Virgin Mary, garlands of pendant fruit, and robust cherubs can be traced in the negative. Capitals await their pillars, and a variety of frames for the Stations of the Cross hang on the walls. On a shelf in another room rest copies of the medallions that adorn the Majestic's walls. Kempfer learned plaster work from Italians in Chicago, and he is as much a businessman as an idealist. He once unsuccessfully floated the idea that the Majestic sell plaster replicas of the interior details for people's homes to raise money for the theater.
Kempfer says there hasn't been as much large-scale public restoration work lately, but he keeps busy ornamenting local churches, where he borrows elements from grander places to elevate houses of worship with modest budgets. He shows me pictures from Divine Providence on Old Pearsall Road. The straightforward modern limestone structure has padded folding chairs for seating, but thanks to Kempfer's handiwork, the altar is positively papal. He has fashioned it from a mold he made of a mantelpiece when he worked on the University of the Incarnate Word chapel and a Last Supper frieze from a 100-year-old church in Wisconsin. While he's an expert at piecing together the elements of a complete Catholic church from dozens of eras and architectural schools, Kempfer was raised Lutheran. "Same thing," he says, "they just don't realize it."
On a busy Thursday morning, artist and businessman Gilberto Duran, whose rascuache homages to famous paintings adorn the walls of Taco Haven and the pages of his self-published magazine Dulce, relaxes in a chair at the card table in Harold's office, waiting to retrieve a framed painting. The office consists of a crowded desk pushed against the wall behind the counter. On top of the paperwork sit, inexplicably, three "Irish Coffee Sets," in the kind of box familiar to patrons of the city's locally owned dollar stores.
Joe Ramos takes Duran's chair when he gets up to leave. He's dogging Harold for a quote on some matte board for framing. In between phone calls, other customers, and a fair amount of fiddling around, he asks, "Harold, are you going to get me that price?" Finally, he makes the call himself, while Harold smokes and listens in.
Harold offers me a cup of coffee that I drink from a mug with his name and "Las Vegas" emblazoned on the front. Kempfer, who wears gold and diamond rings that would make Liberace bite his nails in envy, spends a good deal of his free time in Vegas. When I tell him I'm from Minnesota, he says, "Those Indian casinos up there are really something."
Ramos is off the phone and irritated: "I mean, goddam, if he can't find what you're looking for ... " Harold, his voice low, raspy, and soothing, takes over; a few minutes later he announces triumphantly, "It's on promotion right now! I can get it for $7.25 a sheet." Ramos is impassive.
Walsh walks in, hands Harold some cash, and laughs when he sees Ramos. "I hear you're selling the Plymouth!" he says. "Should I buy it back a third time?"
"I call it Christine," Ramos replies.
Business, already brisk, has picked up as the noon hour approaches. The phone rings almost constantly, and the parking slots out front are full. Lunch is ready for the staff, and it seems like a good time to get out of the way. As we walk out the front door, Harold can be heard saying, "I promise you, Joe, I'll get on it." •
By Elaine Wolff