Artistic License
The New Orleans Conservation Guild has brought Old World discipline and craft to a thoroughly modern problem: decaying works of art, which are abundant in our wet, sunny, moldy, insect-infested home.

By Doug MacCash
Staff Writer
- Times Picayune, Saturday, July 8th, 2000

In an art studio converted from a corner grocery store, Lefty Parker sits at an aluminum-topped table, attempting to bring an oil still-life back from the dead.

After a minute or two of gently stroking the painting with a solvent-soaked Q-tip, a pea-sized patch of bright color appears on the dull surface. Tiny section by tiny section, the cotton swab moves systematically across the surface of the painting. The cherries, which had been mahogany-red, turn scarlet. The pear, which had been olive oil-green, turned chartreuse. And the background, which was a deep tobacco-brown, turns bright amber

Lefty lays the spent Q-tip atop a pick-up stick pile of other dirty swabs. Another piece of artwork rescued from ruin.

Similarly meticulous and seemingly miraculous work takes place daily in the New Orleans Conservation Guild's five room, two-story building at Burgundy and Mazant Streets in Bywater.

There have long been a handful of conservators working in Now Orleans, but before 1998, when guild proprietor Blake Vonder Haar moved into the current space, there had never been such a large, one-stop, multi-service conservation center here. Only four or five others like it exist in the country, but perhaps none as indigenous to its surroundings as this one.

"New Orleans is a great place to be a conservator," said Vonder Haar, "because everything is in a constant state of decay."

Yes, the mold, fungus, airborne contaminants, termites, cockroaches, silverfish, rodents, storms and floods that can damage precious art objects are as plentiful in these parts as bright sunshine and high humidity – and as a matter of fact, bright sunshine and high humidity damage art, too.

And don't forget the clock; the passage of time has an effect on art objects as well. America may be the New World, but the Crescent City is one of the oldest parts, so it has some of the oldest indigenous art.

The maladies that require restoration are as varied as the artworks themselves. The surfaces of paintings flake, the varnish that protects them turns yellow, the gild on their frames dims. Wooden carvings spontaneously split open here and there, their glue joints become loose and their paint fades. Old letters darken and crack at the seams. Grime gathers in the crevices of porcelain figurines.

All of those blemishes are natural and predictable, but caprice sometimes plays a role as well. An electrical fire coats a plaster bust with thick soot. A leak in the roof lets rain water flow into the light fixtures corroding the brass chandelier. Darling daughter drops great-great grandma's Newcomb pot. The moving man puts his knee through the Miro print. Someone donates a recently rediscovered Clague oil painting to the museum, but it's been gnawed at the bottom edge by mice.

Things happen. Vonder Haar and her 12-person team of conservators put them right again.

Her clients include auction houses, antiques dealers, contemporary art galleries (mostly with art that's been damaged in transit), all of the local museums and individuals with family heirlooms to restore. Although there are things people can do to prevent or at least delay the deterioration of their art objects, taking a damaged painting and restoring its original luster is not a job for amateurs.

"Don't tell people to go out and clean their paintings with solvents," warned Lefty Parker "Some of the things we use can eat right through the surface, if you don't know what you're doing. We always test the solvents on the painting first, and use the mildest one that works. I'll sometimes have to chip off really tough specks with the tip of an X-acto knife."

It can take up to several weeks (or as little as a day) just to clean a painting, and that's only the beginning of the problem.

Vonder Haar pointed to another old painting hanging beside Parkers work table, which had been removed from its wooden stretcher bars and hung on the wall like a pelt. The back of the painting was coated with a fresh layer of graygreen cloth.

"This is the next step," she said. "After the painting is cleaned we reline it with linen that has been coated with a mixture of resin and wax. We lay the painting face down on the vacuum table, cover it with a mylar (plastic) sheet, then use a special conservator's iron to melt the wax. The melted wax permeates the old canvas and grabs hold of the back of the old loose paint and re-adheres it. As it cools under vacuum pressure, the surface becomes very smooth. We call that'consolidating' the surface.

"We varnish the painting at this time because varnish is removable, so anything we do to the painting's surface will come off again."

"Reversability" is a conservator's prime directive. A future conservator should be able to undo any repairs or restorations, for two reasons. First, it is important philosophically that art historians always be able to recognize what was original and what was not, and return to the pure original object for study. Secondly, as conservation techniques improve, future restorers should have the opportunity to replace old methods with new.

"We're not trying to repaint the painting; we're just trying to compensate for losses," she said.

Sometimes the losses are small: flakes of paint missing from the foliage, for example. But often, whole areas of the painting are gone with no record of what once existed.

"Re-touching is the artistic part of the work," said Vonder Haar, who originally studied painting at Rocky Mountain College of Art. "You have to figure out what's missing. You have to get inside of the artist's head. You have to try to understand their style, technique and subject."

Vonder Haar describes the work at the Conservation Guild as 40 percent art, 40 percent chemistry and 20 percent archaeology. The place is a bee hive of time-reversal.

On the ground floor, Michelle Levine strips the excess gold leaf from the back of a freshly restored, elaborately-carved vintage frame. Nearby hangs a life-sized, 17th-century wooden statue of St. Dismas, part of his garment rebuilt of wood-tone epoxy putty.

In another room, surrounded by shelves full of broken ceramics, Kim Spranley carefully sculpts the collar on an Edwardian figurine's cape with a specially formulated, bonewhite paste. Upstairs, Michelle Letter scrapes and peels the acidic cardboard backing from a pen and ink drawing so carefully and deliberately that she seems to be in slow motion. In the sunny retouching room, Heather Godlewski custom mixes a baby food jar of paint from the hundreds of jars of pigments and media that line one wall.

There's no standard certification for conservators, says Vonder Haar. Until 10 years ago, few American universities offered degree programs in art restoration. That explains why many of the conservators in her studio are interns or apprentices who work under her strict supervision.

"But," Vonder Haar said, "this isn't a school; it's a business. I only take people who am very serious and are willing to give me two or three years."

Vonder Haar became a conservator in the European apprentice system. She attended The Institute of Art Restoration in Florence, which she describes as "a great place to study, because all of Italy is one giant restoration project."

Then she apprenticed in London to gain the experience to strike out on her own. It wasn't New Orleans' art-debilitating atmosphere that brought Vonder Haar from her native St. Louis, however.

"My story is just like so many other people's," she said. "I came to New Orleans on vacation and became obsessed with the place. ... I found myself living in Capetown, South Africa, and I noticed I was always going to the library to read everything I could get my hands on about Louisiana. That told me what I really wanted to do.

"I did some research to see if there was framing and painting conservation work and I discovered that there was a need for a whole variety of conservation processes. So I moved here in 1997."

Her mission, she says, is part preservation and part restoration.

"Simple conservation," Vonder Haar said, "is stabilizing a piece of art to prevent further deterioration. Restoring a piece of art is trying to return it to its original state. If you conserved the Venus de Milo you would examine and clean her; if you restored her, you'd put on new arms. We're called on to do a little of each."

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