Creating Art to Last

This week’s contributing blogger, Melissa King, is a rising student of art conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation class of 2020. Along with art conservation she is also a professional artist specializing in pet portraiture in acrylic paint.

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During my pursuit to gain the necessary experiences and classwork to apply to graduate programs in art conservation, I became a professional artist by painting acrylic pet portraits under the guise of “Pawblo Picasso”. As I learned more about the aging properties and preservation issues of different materials, I began to think critically about the future of my own artwork. I worked in a studio building with many other artists and craftspeople creating art in a large variety of media. I often asked my fellow artists if the preservation of their artwork was something they considered, and quickly learned that there was indeed a great interest in this topic. I feel so fortunate to have been able to work closely with many art conservators, and to ask them directly about their recommendations for materials and best practices.

I have learned that art conservators can benefit greatly from interactions with artists as well. Artists are continually experimenting with new materials and the goals for the future of their artwork can vary. Learning about an artist’s techniques and materials provides art conservators with an opportunity to think critically about their knowledge of material science and to contemplate the thought processes and goals of different artists. I realized it would benefit both the local artist and art conservator communities in Boston to organize an event to bring these professionals together to have a conversation.

VoCA Creating Art to Last

The panel (Rika Smith McNally, Maggie Wessling, Kate Smith, and Christopher Sokolowski) with the moderator in the front (Melissa King) presenting at “Creating Art to Last: A Conversation with Art Conservators” (photo credit: Kimberly Huestis)

On April 11th, 2017, with the help of volunteers and four different art conservator panelists, I hosted a free event for artists called “Creating Art to Last: A Conversation with Art Conservators”. The event took place at the Armory Café in Somerville, Massachusetts, an event space run by the non-profit organization, Arts at the Armory. A call for conservation panelists and volunteers was made through the New England Conservation Association email list. I was fortunate to have four conservators volunteer to participate in the panel: Maggie Wessling (Photograph conservator, Museum of Fine Art, Boston), Kate Smith (Paintings conservator, Harvard Art Museums), Christopher Sokolowski (Paper conservator, Weissman Preservation Center), and Rika Smith McNally (Objects conservator, Cambridge Arts Council and Rika Smith McNally & Associates).

Golden Artist Colors, Inc., an organization known for providing artists materials information and articles on technical and scientific studies pertaining to paint materials, graciously sponsored the program and contributed copies of their JUST PAINT newsletter. Paintings conservators Dr. Kristin DeGhetaldi and Brian Baade shared handouts with information on their incredible online resource for artists wanting to learn more about materials, Materials Information and Technical Resources for Artists (MITRA). With the help of other conservators, I compiled a valuable resource sheet to hand out to the artists, which can be seen HERE.

VoCA Creating Art to Last

I started the program by introducing myself, the four panelists, and sharing some information on my background in both art and art conservation. I also discussed some of my efforts as an artist hoping to be more conservation-minded, such as the use of backing boards on my paintings, and attaching care instructions for the painting with information on how to find a local conservator if needed.

The panelists were then asked to consider 4 questions:

  1. Please share a specific case story of a piece of art that you have conserved where a more educated knowledge of materials could have aided in its preservation. Especially if this material is not an artistic and aesthetic choice.
  2. As artists alongside conservators, can you share an experience of how your knowledge in art conservation has affected your methods for creating your own artwork?
  3. What are some simple measures that an artist can make that can aid conservators in the future and ultimately with the preservation of our artwork?
  4. Have you had any experiences working directly with artists? What are the advantages of doing this?

The case studies that followed covered issues such as peeling paint on outdoor metal sculptures; curious notes from an artist regretting the use of an adhesive that irreversibly stained the front of his photographs; a painting with layers of varnish between paint layers and the problems this creates for a conservator hoping to remove the inevitable yellowing of a varnish over time; and the woes of using tape on paper artwork.

Some of the conservator panelists were happy to share their experiences as artists and how their knowledge of aging properties has affected their methods and goals as an artist. We discussed the importance of artist intent, and how a conservator’s knowledge of aging properties can affect the artist’s methods and goals. Such knowledge can also become an artistic tool, as some artists believe the aging of an object contributes to its beauty, while others prefer that a piece of art always look the same as the day it left the studio.

The panelists also offered many tips and suggestions to the artists in the crowd. They described the importance of knowing your materials, and pointed to the aforementioned resource sheet we created. They echoed the idea of including care instructions with your artwork, and the helpfulness of leaving behind specific information about the materials that were used. For paintings, the use of backing boards was emphasized. For works on paper, we learned the significance of finding a good framer and how to properly matte our artwork. For our digital media (photographs and files), we explored the importance of using TIFF files and saving our files on cloud-based websites.

Finally, for sculpture, we learned about the option of getting pre-fabrication consultations with conservators (to learn more about Rika Smith McNally’s process, you can check the City of Cambridge website and/or Rika’s website). You can also try reaching out to different conservators to see if they would consider doing this by using the AIC (American Institute for Conservation)’s “Find a Conservator” feature on their website. Overall, the conservators were excited to see that many artists are indeed thinking about these things and curious about the steps they can take.

During the lively Q&A session, members of the audience asked their own questions, and voiced specific concerns about the use of certain materials. Some attendees expressed curiosity about ways to mimic aging to test the longevity of their materials, from which we learned the importance of having duplicates of the same material to keep one as a control when doing any sort of tests (temperature, light, humidity, etc.). Based on feedback from the event, the artists and the conservators were very pleased with the opportunity to discuss these issues and meet other local arts professionals. It is clear that the conversation must continue, so I hope to host more events of this type in the future.

A video of this event is available HERE.

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