by Melissa Cross
We pulled into our driveway just as the fire trucks were leaving. Our house had suffered a major fire as we were returning from the holiday vacation. It was the start of a long and emotional process of sorting through our charred and smoke-covered possessions, evaluating each as to whether it could be saved or should simply be thrown out.
When you look at your possessions, most really are of no great consequence and can easily be replaced. But what was devastating for us was seeing the portrait of my mother’s mother, who had died in childbirth having my mother, now lying on the floor, a pile of smoke-covered paint fragments barely clinging to a charred canvas. That painting was the only real memory of a mother she never got to know and a grandmother that we knew only from the life-size portrait that hung in our dining room. It was surely destroyed, beyond all efforts for salvation.
That’s when my family experienced firsthand the miraculous work that skilled art restoration professionals can accomplish. I was a young girl at the time, but the process of bringing damaged art back to life remains basically the same, whether a family heirloom, a favorite print or a valuable Monet.
“We work on a lot of water-damaged art,” states Christine Young, a paper art conservation professional in Nashville. “But often the art has simply been mishandled, badly framed or improperly stored,” she adds. Christine is one of three trained and nationally respected art conservation professionals in Nashville along with Dee Minault and Cynthia Stow, partners in Cumberland Art Conservation, who specialize in traditional oil paintings. In fact, while most states are lucky to have one such professional, because there are several historic sites, museums and prominent collections here, “Nashville is something of a mecca for art conservation,” Christine says.
Art restoration loosely refers to just one part of the art conservation process—the cleaning and paint repair treatments. But the complete conservation process involves much more and must include stabilizing the media and materials, reinforcing the structure of the art, and ensuring the proper environment to prevent future deterioration and promote long-term preservation.
As Christine Young explains, art conservation is a multi-disciplinary field that requires education in analytic sciences, material sciences, art history, hands-on preservation techniques, and studio art training, including the skills to fill in missing sections of art, known as in-painting. “People are always surprised that there is so much science involved in this field, but you need to know the chemistry and chemical composition of the art in order to preserve it.”
Christine’s East Nashville studio is immaculate, with everything in its place, an array of tools designed for intricate and detailed tasks and a large table to spread her work out on. With a Masters in Conservation, Christine specializes in art on paper, including prints, drawings, pastels, watercolors, photographs and documents. She often works on art that has been damaged by water, and her projects include over 400 pieces damaged as a result of flooding from Hurricane Katrina. Surprisingly, one treatment for flood damage actually involves immersing the art in a water bath. Other common treatments include solar and ultraviolet light bleaching.
“Pastels are tricky because you can’t put those in a water bath,” Christine explains. She recently completed the painstakingly detailed conservation work on a Degas pastel for the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, a process that took a year and a half.
Another common condition of damage, especially in the South, is mold. “Everybody brings in their mold!” Christine declares. “Mold is a living thing that’s always in the environment. The adverse effects remain active,” she explains. Using tiny brushes, erasers and a small HEPA filtered vacuum, Christine removes as much mold as possible and completes the conservation by creating a low-humidity environment that will prevent further mold growth.
“Because there are several historic sites, museums and prominent collections here, Nashville is something of a mecca for art conservation.”
As a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), Christine has clients that include prominent museums and historical sites as well as private collectors. Her most time-consuming project was as part of the team of conservators who preserved the nineteenth-century block-printed scenic wallpaper in the central hallway of The Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. The removal, treatment, reinstallation and reconstruction of missing sections of the Paysage de Telemaque wallpaper took over two years.
Although a relatively simple process, another common conservation task involves removing dried-up tape from works on paper, often on documents and manuscripts. One such project was for the Federal Reserve where Christine was escorted into the sub- sub-basement of the bank site and, under the watchful eyes of several armed guards, she carefully removed the tape from several large bills, including a $1,000,000 bill.
Across town in their studios off West End Avenue, Dee Minault’s and Cynthia Stow’s Cumberland Art Conservation is messy business. Working with traditional oil paintings and specializing in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Southern art, Dee and Cynthia are Fellows of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and each has over 30 years of professional experience. They’ve seen just about everything, mostly dry-rotted canvases, paintings that have been damaged by fire or water, and canvases with deep creases from being folded for storage. Much of the damage is due to neglect or incompetent restoration, often done at framing shops and even by artists themselves, such as a canvas that has been glued to a Masonite board. Perhaps the most dramatic damage was after Hurricane Andrew in the summer of 1992. “The heat and high humidity were devastating,” Dee exclaims. “We saw three-dimensional mold on those pieces!”
While many paintings require only cleaning or repairs of tears in the canvas, complex conservation starts with stabilizing and reinforcing the support before tackling the “cosmetic stage”—the actual painting. In such a conservation the first step is to apply a temporary facing tissue over the front layers of paint and across any tears to protect it during treatment. Once the front is secure, they can then work on the back of the canvas, removing linings and adhesives that are causing damage such as cracking, flaking and mold due to the water content in the material. Another step is to use gentle heat to “relax” the canvas to remove distortions and creases.
Working on a vacuum hot table throughout this process, tears and holes in the canvas are patched, and new fabric lining is applied to complete the structural support. Then the facing tissue is removed so the paint can be cleaned and restored.
“Keeping in mind the whole structure of the piece, we continually think forwards and backwards,” Dee states as she inspects a recently relined piece. “We’re really problem solvers,” Cynthia adds. “If we know the materials and we know the chemistry, we can understand the why and how to prevent that damage in the future.”
Dee and Cynthia use a variety of lights, microscopes and visual aides to do their work, including ultraviolet light, which reveals where there has been in-painting and can disclose the conservation history and extent of previous restoration.
“The most important thing,” Cynthia adds, “is that restoration work should always be reversible, meaning that in 50 or 100 years, when there may be superior materials and techniques, our work can be undone, and new methods of conservation will continue to preserve the art for many years to come.”
Christine Young, Paper Conservator
Contact (615) 227-0538
Cumberland Art Conservation, Dee Minault and Cynthia Stow
Contact (615) 269-3868