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Westmoreland exhibit highlights works that need a little help

About Kurt Shaw
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‘Your Art Needs You!'

When: Through Feb. 17. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; Thursdays until 9 p.m.

Admission: $5; free to age 11 and younger

Where: Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 N. Main St., Greensburg

Details: 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org


By Kurt Shaw

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

A museum may be the safest place of all to hold precious artworks, but time can be just as harmful to cherished objects of all kinds. And when time takes its toll, it's the job of the art conservator to make things better.

The exhibit “Your Art Needs You!,” at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, features 179 works from the museum's permanent collection that each needs a little tender loving care.

Take, for example, the painting “Still Life With Fruit and Wine” painted in 1858 by John F. Francis (1808-86). Small blemishes can be seen throughout the painting's surface, most likely caused by abrasive substances used in past cleanings, says the Westmoreland Museum's chief curator, Barbara Jones.

Jones says the painting is “acceptable” as is, but it needs to be touched up for an upcoming exhibit. “We'd like to have this done because it will be loaned to the Art Institute of Chicago for their exhibition ‘Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine,' Nov. 3, 2013 through Jan. 19, 2014,” Jones says.

Not just paintings, but frames can suffer damage over time, especially as things are moved around. A frame can easily get scratched, dinged or end up missing pieces or chunks, especially if they have gesso or plaster underlayers.

Pointing to the painting “On the Monongahela” (1860) by William Coventry Wall (1811-66), Jones says, “The frame is in the most need as it has several missing pieces.”

On the upper left corner, the rosette section is missing, and on the lower left corner, the outside leaf sections are missing in addition to a section of the floral motif on the lower rail of the frame.

“As long as there is an exact replica of the missing ornaments elsewhere on the frame, I use a mold-making silicone material and make a cast of the ornament,” says frame restoration specialist Emilie Cohen of Emilie Cohen Studios in Lawrenceville. Trained at Gold Leaf Studios in Washington, D.C., Cohen been doing frame restoration and gold leaf since 1990.

Cohen says the mold-making material she uses is quick-setting, doesn't stick to the surface and makes wonderful detailed castings. “I fill the mold with a plaster, which can be tinted to an ochre color,” she says. “That has to harden overnight. Once removed from the mold, I have to carve them in order to fit perfectly back into the missing section. Once the carving is finished, I glue them into place.”

Because the plaster is porous, it has to be sealed with shellac. A color layer is put on, and it will be the color of the clay underneath the gold surface. That is also sealed with shellac. An oil-based primer is applied and allowed to dry for 10 to 12 hours. The surface is then ready for the gold.

“I use 22- or 23-karat, which ever is closer in color to the original surface,” Cohen says. “Of course, the new gold will be too bright and new looking. The gold has to be toned in order to blend into the surrounding and original surface.”

Cohen says that if there is no replica of the missing ornaments, then she has to carve them individually. “The process is indeed labor-intensive,” she says. “The goal is to make the piece look well cared for, but not new.”

“Even with hours of examination and preparation, a conservator will often find things that are not immediately visible,” says Christine Daulton, a paintings conservator who has had a private practice in Greensburg since 1986. Before that, Daulton worked at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Since 2001, she has been the paintings conservator at the Andy Warhol Museum in addition to her private practice.

Daulton will work on many of the paintings in the exhibit, after the funds are raised for their conservation. Each of the works in the exhibit are marked with price tags indicating how much the restoration would cost for the paintings, frames or both.

Daulton's work will involve cleaning their surfaces by removing old varnish and repairing any holes, cracks or missing paint with a process called “inpainting.”

The overall restoration process may sound somewhat simple, but it actually is quite extensive. To begin with, Daulton says each painting will be photographed, assigned a tracking number and thoroughly examined in normal light, UV light and under magnification.

“I will make up a work schedule for the piece, noting each step that will have to be taken,” Daulton says.

Many times, the conservator has to repair previous restoration attempts. For example, with the “Portrait of Thomas McKean” (1776) by Charles Willson Peale, Daultin says, “This painting, like many older works, has been restored at least once in the past. Given its age and the fame of its maker, it is likely that it was restored multiple times.”

Daulton says the original varnish and probably subsequent varnishes would have been made of a natural resin such as damar or mastic. These varnishes darken over time, giving the painting a brownish tint that can dull the colors and mask details. “These varnishes also become increasingly insoluble with age so that they require stronger solvents to remove them,” Daulton says.

“At some time, the ‘Portrait of Thomas McKean' was cleaned rather vigorously, and in the attempt to remove the darkened varnish, some of the original paint was removed, as well,” she says.

Daulton says this is called “solvent abrasion,” and it usually reveals itself as multiple tiny losses of paint in the areas that were cleaned. “The paint will look thin and worn,” she says. “When a conservator encounters this type of damage now, he or she will put a tiny drop of paint on each loss, making sure not to cover up the surrounding original paint.”

However, Daulton says, the restorer who cleaned this painting simply painted over large areas of solvent abrasion, covering not only the damage but the original paint as well. “The eyes and jaw of the sitter are badly damaged, and the overpaint gives a poor, distorted version of Thomas McKean's face,” she says. “My job will be to safely remove the overpaint and the varnishes that cover the painting.”

To do this without damaging the work further, Daulton will be testing various solvent mixtures and solvent gels based on the chemistry of the paint and the varnishes. “Once I have found suitable materials, I will slowly remove these layers using small cotton swabs,” she says.

After the painting has been cleaned, she will apply a new, non-yellowing synthetic-resin varnish that will remain soluble in solvents that are not damaging to the painting. “Then, I will begin the long process of inpainting, using a tiny brush to fill in the dots on all the losses until the fully restored image emerges,” Daulton say.

Conservators always use a different type of paint than that used in the original work so that it can be removed without affecting the original paint. For this, Daulton uses a combination of Da Vinci gouache for underpainting larger losses and Gamblin Conservation Colors, an acrylic paint, for finishing.

Inpainting is a process that is not only limited to oil paintings. A cigar store Indian, believed to be from the 1860s, will be lightly cleaned and then select paint losses on the figure will be filled overall with a tinted spackling compound.

“The purpose of the tinting is to create a base color on which to apply washes of inpainting,” says Michael Belman, an objects conservator with Fine Art Conservation Services in Squirrel Hill. Belman and his partner, Chantal Bernicky, have more than 30 years of combined experience restoring metals, wood, ceramics, stone, glass, leather, plastics and paintings on canvas, panel and paper in addition to murals and ceilings.

For the indian, Belman says, inpainting will be applied to integrate the cracks and loss of paint into the surrounding surface. “This multilayered approach is a trick to better camouflage paint losses,” he says. “The losses likely formed from moving the sculpture over time. As the sculpture is relatively heavy, the minor bumps and scrapes have accumulated to create the current abraded appearance in select areas.”

Bernickey and Belman also will be working on a carousel pig (no date), which, like the indian, has scattered splits and chipped paint. “The major problems with the carousel pig are the splits traveling through the face,” Belman says. “These splits were likely created by expansion and contraction of the wood grain as the temperature and humidity fluctuated over time.”

To make the repairs, Belman and Bernickey will inject adhesive into the splits to stabilize them, then fill them with tinted spackle, and follow with inpainting. To do this, the pig will be mounted to a pole, similar to when it was in use, and some preparatory work is needed to allow that to happen.

“The hole that accepted a pole which ran from the top of the front of the saddle down through the belly has been filled in, so this will need to be carefully excavated,” Belman says. “Then, there will be a campaign of filling and inpainting select paint losses, overall.”

“The goal for both treatments is not to make the objects look brand new,” Belman says, “but it is important that both objects have a patina of age.”

The cost of conserving these paintings, sculptures and frames can sometimes be pretty high. So visitors to this exhibition will be invited to “adopt” a work of art to help cover the costs. Everyone who adopts a work will be credited on a special wall label for one year following the re-opening and re-installation of the museum's $15 million expansion/renovation, which will almost double the size of the 35,000-square-foot museum. Additionally, patrons will receive a certificate of adoption for their chosen object, a one-year membership to the museum, and recognition in the annual report.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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