Volume 18, Number 1
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Preserve, Protect and Extend

Students who enroll in any of the thousands of courses offered across more than two dozen graduate and undergraduate programs at SVA will not go long before they encounter one common goal: learning how to speak their creative piece in their own artistic voice. Drawing upon the influences and lessons of other artists, movements and forms and synthesizing a personal approach to making work is as important for students in painting and computer art courses as it is for those learning filmmaking, interior design or art criticism.

But a handful of SVA alumni have chosen professions in which speaking in their own voice would be anathema: art restoration, conservation and preservation. This is not to say that practitioners in these fields don’t need to have a fully developed set of skills and sense of craft; but in order to be successful the work they do must speak fluently in the voice of the original artist and their creative input must go mostly unnoticed.

CSI: Art Edition Joseph Tiedemann (BFA 1992 Illustration) runs Renaissance Restoration Studios, Inc., a New Jersey firm that focuses primarily on restoring and conserving works found in houses of worship, including religious murals, stained-glass windows and other pieces. Whenever he begins a new project, one of the first roles he must play is that of art detective. “It’s like an episode of CSI,” he says. “You have to do an investigation, an assessment to analyze the materials and define the problem.” While each restoration project is different, Tiedemann says that most damage results from the same two “culprits”: moisture and rapid temperature changes, which separately or together will degrade most materials used to make works of art.

Once he’s assessed the damage, the next bit of sleuthing involves figuring out what methods and materials were used to create the work, a process that often involves as much knowledge of art history as practical skill. For a recent project restoring a series of murals by 20th-century Spanish artist Fernando Calderón at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New Providence, NJ, Tiedemann assessed the original works, then began working backward to get an idea of how the pieces had looked when Calderón had painted them in the mid-1960s. In this case, he figured out what kind of paint had been used, and even tracked down some of the late artist’s studio assistants in Spain to learn what sort of brushes he’d favored. “I wanted to know how he held the brush and how he laid out the paint so I could match his exact style,” says Tiedemann, who routinely practices an artist’s style for an extended period before he’ll consider himself ready to approach a particular piece of art.

Once he does begin the actual restoration work, there is an important principle that Tiedemann applies to each step of the procedure. “I make sure that everything I do is reversible,” he says. All of the sealants and chemicals he uses are chosen not only for their reparative qualities, but they must also be removable—because technology, materials and techniques change, and any future conservators who might be called in can then make their repairs more easily. “This is part of the life of any work of art,” says Tiedemann of his vocation, “and the artwork should be treated with respect.”

Restore, Conserve, PreserveMost of Tiedemann’s work falls into the broad professional category of restoration—restoring a damaged work of art so it looks just as it did originally. But within the field there are also the separate (but related) areas of conservation and preservation. “People tend to think of restoration when they think of repairing any damaged art,” says Ron Barbagallo (BFA 1981 Media Arts), a conservator (and sometimes restorer) in the field of film animation art who for more than two decades has worked almost entirely with original hand-painted animation cels and backgrounds. “Over time, the field of restoration has evolved into conservation and preservation, with conservation being healing the damage within the  original materials and/or creating barriers between the original painting and any new paint you’d be adding,” he says. “The notion of respecting the original paint and being able to remove any new or non-native paint is key. Preservation is bringing someone in who examines a piece’s materials to figure out how they will react to their environment over time and what alterations to that environment can be made to preserve the work for the future.” The three branches of the trade often overlap, but each requires a specific set of skills and approaches that will lead practitioners to specialize.

In fact, nearly every field of artistic endeavor has, by necessity, its own branch of restoration/conservation/preservation that is specifically geared toward the history, materials and practitioners of each medium. Barbagallo’s specialization in animation artwork stems from his long-standing love of traditional animation art as well as his training as an artist. “At SVA I took every class I needed to for what I do now: art history, painting, animation and so forth,” he says. All of the skills and knowledge he acquired to be an artist have to come together for his restoration and conservation work; having accumulated an in-depth knowledge of, for example, the history of and materials used by the Disney animation studios helps him gauge how the damage on a cel came about and suggest what can be done to repair it.

Tied in with that knowledge is an understanding of what’s not part of the artwork. Barbagallo recently spent several months focusing on the original cels and key master production backgrounds from the “Heigh-Ho” sequence of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “In this kind of work I need to see how it’s been monkeyed with since it left the studio,” he says. “I remove any tape, adhesive, glue, dust and debris that wasn’t native to the cel. Then I have to guesstimate what has to be done to get it looking right without removing or compromising the original paint.” One of his primary techniques is called inpainting, in which he integrates new paint to areas of loss or damage around the native media in ways that exactly match the sheen, density, color and other factors. “It’s the act of being a complete chameleon, which most good restorers are,” he says.

Artistic MedicinePractitioners of restoration and its associated disciplines work with pieces of art in most mediums and genres—not to mention across a wide range of price points. Jareth Holub (BFA 1986 Fine Arts) is a ceramics restorer who explains both the value of restoring pieces for, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and repairing works owned by individuals that simply hold an important place in someone’s heart. “My company, Ceramic Restorations, will restore everything from Egyptian artifacts to pieces made a month ago. Quite often I work on pieces that are worth about $30, but that a client will spend $300 on to restore because they are family heirlooms and they mean something,” he says. “The bottom line is: you’re preserving history.” That history can be found in pieces everywhere from the Met’s collection of ancient Greek pots to a contemporary Chelsea gallery to a family living room—and they can all benefit from the life-extending work that restorers and conservators do.

Understanding where on that continuum a piece falls is an important part of the restoration process, since it can be easy to overdo things. Holub explains that sometimes, professionally cleaning and gluing together a damaged ceramic piece will be all that is needed to undo the effects of time or mishandling. Then there’s “museum restoration,” where missing sections are just replaced with colored fill and the decoration is broadly matched: “It makes the piece look whole again, but you can see what is missing.” Finally, he says, there’s, “invisible repair, where the restored work will look just as it did when it came out of the kiln.” Like a doctor, a restorer must not only assess the affliction, but determine a course of treatment that is right for each “patient.”

And as with the practice of medicine, each treatment in art restoration can affect not only the life span but also the overall quality of life for the patient. When Tiedemann talks about his work being “part of the life of the artwork,” he is acknowledging something easily missed in the typical focus on artistic creation and commerce: when properly attended to, a work of art can go through several stages of life, with the initial creation being just the big bang of an ongoing journey. For instance, the Mona Lisa and the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are certainly historically and aesthetically important works in their own right, but the attention given to their conservation and preservation also create an ongoing relationship between the original works and subsequent generations of viewers. Given the opportunity to persist over longer periods of time, works of art can have expanded relevance and continue to reveal new meanings.

Art and ScienceUltimately, deciding what kind and how much repair and retouching an individual piece needs, and then having the skills and tools to make those repairs, is a carefully balanced combination of art and science. “There’s no single how-to formula,” says Barbagallo, who will still approach each piece of Disney cel art as an individual case requiring both his investigative knowledge and painter’s touch, even though his career has long focused on that single studio’s output.
The obsessive attention to detail and the specific needs of every work of art that is restored combine to become a body of singular work—even as the artists’ ultimate success lies in sublimating their own voices in favor of preserving the voice that originally “spoke.” “I may never be famous in my own right for my painting work,” says Tiedemann as he looks up at one of the Calderón murals he’s restoring, “but it’s a tremendous honor to work with these masters.”

Credits            From the President