Pantsless Kenneth has pants on, and he is holding something that looks like a Q-tip on steroids, and he is using said supersized Q-tip to gesture at a Dutch painting from the 17th century that he will soon shoot with ultraviolet rays.
OK, let's take those one by one.
Kenneth Bé is the man who received some minor measure of notoriety in The World-Herald — and eventually in the New York Times— when he appeared in my column titled “The Great Omaha Manhole Fireball Mystery.”
He received this notoriety because I knocked on his door looking for the person who took that infamous photo appearing to show flames bursting forth from manhole covers in downtown Omaha.
He received this notoriety because he talked to me with the door cracked open an inch, and then he kindly explained that he would normally invite me in, except that right now he wasn't wearing any pants.
Hence: Pantsless Kenneth.
But as it turns out, Kenneth Bé is much more than his lack of slacks. As he stood and spoke to me through a door crack, he started to tell me about his day job. And I started to tell him that, on another day, I would totally write about his day job.
Which is why I'm standing in the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center, which sits just feet from where our 38th president lived as a newborn.
It's why Kenneth Bé, a 53-year-old, well-respected conservator of paintings, is showing me around his laboratory, where he takes dirty and damaged old paintings — like this beautiful 17th century Dutch painting from the Joslyn Art Museum — and makes them look new again.
It's why Kenneth is showing me how he replaces a painting's canvas, and he lifts up a piece of wood that is covering a painting and ... I scream.
We'll get back to the scream in a second. First, let's follow Kenneth as he leads us on a tour of one of Omaha's hidden gems, a conservation center run by the Nebraska State Historical Society that restores art owned by the region's museums, galleries and art collectors to its former glory.
In the lobby you will find the obligatory photos of Gerald Ford as a baby. Did you know he lived in a now-demolished house on this block for only 16 days? Did you know that when he was born, Gerald Ford's name was Leslie King Jr., and his dad was an abusive lout?
(After Leslie's mom fled from his father, she remarried a Michigan painter named Gerald Ford Sr., who quite mercifully gave Leslie his new and now-famous name.)
Kenneth flicks on the conservation center's ballroom lights, and laid out on the carpet is a giant painting that long ago starred in Omaha Italians' once-a-year celebration.
They used to take “The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy” outside and parade it during the Santa Lucia Festival, which is still held in Omaha's Little Italy.
But at some point the painting stayed inside, Kenneth says, and it sat rolled up in a dark place, and over time it got stretched and torn and dirty.
Soon Kenneth will repair those rips and clean off decades of grime. By next year's festival, the Italians will again be able to parade their giant painting during Santa Lucia.
“When I flew in for the interview, I remember looking out the window and wondering if there were any paintings between all those cornstalks,” says Kenneth, who graduated from New York University's prestigious conservation program and worked for years as a conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “It turns out there is historic and artistic heritage tucked into every corner of Nebraska.”
Next Kenneth takes me into his lab, where he currently has 62 different projects in one stage of conservation or another.
Here is a portrait of Gen. John J. Pershing that normally hangs in the governor's mansion.
Here are several pieces of a majestic Grant Wood mural. The mural once hung in Council Bluffs' Chieftain Hotel until the owner — in a fit of near-criminal stupidity — allowed people to come in and carve off chunks of the painting and take them home in 1970.
And here is the aforementioned Dutch painting, which was finished in the year 1660. In the year 2013, Kenneth plans to look at this with UV light to determine how it is varnished.
He uses this tool and others to see to the very bottom of a painting, so he can visually peel back the layers of paint to see how the artist used black, then gray, then blue, then brown to give it texture.
He shows me how he mixes paint to retouch paintings and how he painstakingly cleans off dirt with a giant Q-tip and some special chemicals. He starts to show me how he uses heat and pressure and moisture to replace destroyed canvases.
That's when it happens. Pantsless Kenneth pushes aside a piece of wood, and there on the heating table, staring back at me, is a childhood ghost.
This is when I yelp like I'm 7.
Staring back at me is a painting from 1887 of two terrified men steering a team of horses as they are chased by a pack of wolves.
Willa Cather stared at this painting, then owned by a family friend, when she was a girl in Red Cloud, Neb. Years later, she used this painting as inspiration for a haunting story she tells in the middle of her masterpiece, “My Ántonia.”
I also hail from Red Cloud, Neb., and when I was a kid, I remember staring at this painting — housed in an old bank building now part of the Willa Cather Foundation — and being mesmerized by the startled horses and the bloodthirsty wolves.
Right now, Pantsless Kenneth is restoring this painting from my 1,000-person hometown, a painting of serious significance to Red Cloud's most famous resident and her most famous book.
“No way,” I say to Kenneth. “No way.”
Kenneth wants to continue the tour, and so he shows me the objects lab, where they fix broken Tiffany glass and clean 18th century European figurines and where they are currently restoring hundreds of Wild West-era guns.
He even makes a couple of Pantsless Kenneth jokes at his own expense.
And I must say this: Kenneth Bé has been the best-ever sport about the fact that I poked fun at him in a column that nearly 100,000 people have seen online and that has been written about in the New York Times.
But, to be honest, my mind is wandering.
Consider this: A chance meeting in an Omaha apartment building while searching to solve Omaha's Manhole Fireball Mystery has led me to a tour with a nationally known art restorer, which has led me to stare directly into my hometown's — and my own — past.
I have started a long, strange journey with Pantsless Kenneth, and it has led me back home.
Kenneth seems quite calm about this, but he is excited to tell me about his plan to restore the Red Cloud painting, which is owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Cather Foundation.
After much internal debate, he has decided he needs to repaint a tiny section of one of the horse's heads because a tear has permanently offset the image. Just last night, he decided how he would do this.
“This horse is going to need just a little bit longer nose,” he says. “No way around it.”
As I trail Kenneth Bé out of his lab, I briefly regain my composure long enough to record for posterity the question that all of humanity is dying to know.
Question: What kind of pants does Pantsless Kenneth wear when he puts on his pants?
Answer: Black jeans.
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