Published 10:11 am Monday, August 13, 2018

Making art requires many qualities in a person, not the least of which is patience. Britton Culpepper Jr. can speak to that as he spent hours — 1,081, to be more precise — putting together a masterpiece of a puzzle containing 18,000 pieces. His finished product, which is secured with special glue, panel mounts and a matching gold-colored frame, can be found not in a nearby museum, but appropriately in the fellowship hall at Franklin Baptist Church.

Britton Culpepper stands beside the finished 18,000-piece puzzle of the St. Columba Altarpiece, which was originally painted by the 15th century Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. Culpepper worked on the puzzle for 1,031 hours, with another 50 later devoted to creating the backing, framing and mounting in a fellowship hall at Franklin Baptist Church. — Stephen H. Cowles | Tidewater News

Culpepper said that he and his wife, Jo, were vacationing 12 years ago in Europe and were in the city of Bruges, Belgium. Walking through the streets they saw an especially large jigsaw puzzle in a shop window. But there was no time to browse, much less purchase one. After all, how does a person pack such a thing in luggage?

Jo said she found the puzzle in a catalogue and surprised her husband with it that Christmas.

“I was astounded and delighted at the gift but soon realized it would require a monumental effort to get it assembled,” he said, adding that the puzzle would eventually measure 10 feet, 6 inches long by 5 feet, 1 inch high, and there really wasn’t the space in their home.

Years passed that included occasional attempts for assembly or even to create a backing board.

The box gathered dust until this past September when Culpepper told his brother, Larry, about the puzzle. A suggestion of his pointed to a solution. Beginning after Thanksgiving, Culpepper and his wife built three backing boards of 3/4-inch plywood for stability. The first was put in an upstairs room on two sawhorses.

The pieces were divided into three clear plastic bags, and he would first look to find colors particular to a certain panel, such as the woman’s bright green dress in the far panel. By the way, that amounted to 6,000 pieces. The same dividing technique was done for the other two sections.

“Turned out I guessed right,” Culpepper said.

Like most people experienced in assembling puzzles, he began with the border, but was not able to finish as quickly as he would have liked. Piecing together the aforementioned woman took about 320 hours before finishing in early January.

If that first section was a challenge, the center part was even more so because so many pieces were either similar in size, shape or even color. That took 479 hours, and wasn’t done until April 1.

Post-It notes came in handy to keep track of those stubborn pieces that should have fit, but did not.

More than once, said Culpepper, he labored for more than 10 or 11 hours a day and would only get about 12 pieces put together in the right after.

“Those were horribly frustrating days,” Culpepper recalled. “Then the next day I would get 50 pieces done. There were good days and bad days.”

Once the two panels were secured, work started on the remaining one. He figured “only 223 hours” were needed for that last part. Puzzle glue was put on each of the three panels and those were taken to the garage, which is where he built the frame.

“It weren’t easy,” Jo said about that last part.

Culpepper said with a chuckle that it’s “doubtful” he’ll ever do another puzzle of that magnitude.

The arrangement for placing the finished picture in the church goes back to early 2007.

“The subject was broached after getting the puzzle,” he said. “We had talked to the church council asking if the church would be willing to accept it. Last year when I finally realized I could put it together, we talked again to church officials, who said yes.”

The panels were separated again, taken to the church and reconnected one last time. There were 324 pieces to be reattached and glued in where the panels joined, said Culpepper. Another coat of puzzle glue was added, then the frame was attached, making it ready for hanging in the aforementioned location.

Oh, and the image itself? That is the St. Columba Altarpiece, which was painted by the Flemish artist Rogier Van Der Weyden (1300 or 1400 to June 18, 1464.) The section on the left is the “Annunciation.” The center is “The Adoration of the Magi,” and the right is the Presentation in the Temple

The work was first displayed in Cologne, Germany, but is now reported to be in Munich. Thanks to the couple, you won’t need to travel thousands of miles and spend a few thousand dollars to see the original. You can easily arrange to go to Franklin Baptist Church and see the Culpeppers’ masterpiece.