Conservator Spotlight – Works on Paper

Works on Paper Conservation Studio

Works on paper globe conservation projectWorks on Paper was established when it’s founder, Carolyn Frisa, relocated to Vermont from Boston in 2008.  She works with cultural institutions, art galleries, framers, dealers in fine art and antiques, private individuals, corporate clients, and insurance companies assessing, restoring and preserving various paper-based artifacts.

A wide range of artistic and historic works on paper fill the studio’s portfolio of conserved artifacts. Some of the artifacts Carolyn worked on are not your conventional flat paper documents or artwork. We were most impressed with the transformation of a badly damaged Smith’s Terrestrial Globe circa 1877, which was restored to it’s original glory.
Carolyn was kind enough to answer some questions for us:

How long have you been in preservation business?
I am entering my thirteenth year as a practicing paper conservator since receiving a master’s degree in paper conservation in 2000. I started my private practice, Works on Paper, in 2008, and have been a Professional Associate of the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) since 2007.

What is your professional background. Have you always been a conservator?
I had the rare and very fortunate experience of being introduced to conservation while still in middle school. I was immediately drawn to the work of conservators, and concentrated in fine art while in high school. I received an undergraduate degree in the history of art from Bryn Mawr College and entered a graduate program in paper conservation at Camberwell College in London the same year. After receiving my master’s degree, I worked as a paper conservator at Tate Britain before returning to the States. After moving to Boston, I began working at the Northeast Document Conservation Center as a Kress Fellow Paper Conservator and stayed with them for the next six years. I relocated to southern Vermont in 2008 and started my own private practice paper conservation studio, Works on Paper, attaining one of my primary goals set while in graduate school.

What is your conservation specialty?
As a paper conservator, I specialize in the treatment of many types of paper-based objects. These include works of art on paper such as watercolors, prints, pastels and posters, as well as archival materials such as maps, letters, documents, architectural drawings and diplomas. One of my favorite specialties is the conservation of historic wallpaper and I typically work on several large-scale wallpaper projects each year. I also work on three-dimensional objects such as globes, fans, and hat and band boxes. This variety of types of objects is one of the primary aspects that initially drew me to paper conservation as a specialty while applying to graduate programs. It definitely keeps thing interesting in my studio and I always look forward to working on the different projects I typically have scheduled for each week.

Can you name one or two of the most memorable artifacts you’ve worked on?
One of the favorite projects I worked on while at NEDCC was the conservation of the Meriwether Lewis Collection, a large collection of letters and documents written to or from Meriwether Lewis as well as other members of the Corps of Discovery while on the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Playing a crucial roll in the preservation of such an important part of our country’s history was one of the most professionally satisfying achievements of my career thus far.
I am currently working on a much smaller scale project for the Danby-Mount Tabor Historical Society (VT) that involves the conservation treatment of a ledger kept by a local blacksmith from 1850 – 1890. This ledger is especially important to the town’s history because it was one of the very few items that were salvaged after the museum’s building was washed into the river and destroyed as a result of Tropical Storm Irene. This ledger, along with several smaller ones and an artifact known as the “witch’s hat”, were retrieved downstream in the weeks following the storm.

Conservation treatment of blacksmith's ledger
Conservation treatment of blacksmith's ledger. Images courtesy of Carolyn Frisa. Click to see in full size in our Gallery.

What would be the hardest project?
The most challenging project I have worked on in my career so far was the conservation of the “Wall of Prayer”, the temporary construction fence outside of Bellevue Hospital covered with missing persons posters and letters of support following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Not only was this the most emotionally charged project I have ever worked on, it also presented a whole host of new conservation treatment challenges.

Bamboo Handle Hake BrushWhat are your favorite archival tools?
My favorite archival tools include various sized metal and Teflon spatulas, tweezers, and Japanese brushes such as the Hake Brush and Kuroge-Tsukemawashi Joining Brush. Other indispensable materials, of course, include Wheat Starch paste and a variety of Japanese Kozo Papers.
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Location
: Bellows Falls, VT
Online
: worksonpaperconservation.com Blog: Pulp Fixin’
Specialty
: Conserving a wide range of artistic and historic works on paper

A Restoration Gone Awry

Sometimes actions taken with best of intentions, can result in complete disaster. Such was the case in the tiny Spanish village of Borja, after an elderly woman claimed responsibility for attempting to restore a century-old fresco painted by Elias Garcia Martinez. The painting is a depiction of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and is named Ecce Homo or “Behold the Man” translated from Latin. The new version unintentionally gives Jesus’s beard a drastic shave and removes the crown of thorns. Some have even said that the painting gives its subject a monkey-like appearance.

The Ecce Homo before and after "restoration."

Cecilia Gimenez told Spanish television that she wanted to help fix the painting after seeing it deteriorate from moisture and flaking caused by humidity over the years. She also told reporters that her “restoration” was done with the permission of the church’s priest. “The priest knew it,” Gimenez explained to local television. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.” Initially, officials believed that the painting fell victim to vandalism instead of the good intentions of one of the church’s parishioners. “I’ve seen many well intentioned do-it-yourself restorations; objects have great meaning to people, and they want to keep them looking good,” said Beth Edelstein, an associate conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “It’s at least heartening that she did it out of love and care for the painting, rather than with an intent to do harm,” she added.

Fixes for the Fresco

Gimenez’s alterations to the painting render it largely unrecognizable compared to the original that had been hanging in her beloved church for years. Gone are the painting’s original proportions, perspective, shading, and depth. Edelstein believes that it is quite possible that Gimenez’s changes to the painting are in fact reversible. The elderly woman’s recollection of the materials she used and her methods will be a great help for conservators as plans for conservation move forward. “It is actually quite helpful that she can tell the conservators exactly what she did and what she used — we rarely have that information and often spend a lot of time trying to determine the answers to those questions,” she said to the Houston Chronicle.

The American Institute of Conservators strongly advises against do-it-yourself conservation projects undertaken by amateurs. On the organization’s website, there is a function to find a conservator in your area to perform the work needed on your piece. Additionally, AIC offers a comprehensive guide on how to choose the right conservator for your project, in addition to an exhaustive article regarding the care of paintings.

Despite AIC’s strong recommendations, amateur art restorers around the world now have a strictly internet-based chance to make their own changes to the Ecce Homo as part of the Cecilia Prize contest. Entry is simple: restore the painting using a virtual palette and then tweet  your submission using the #CeciliaPrize hashtag on Twitter. Your prize? A poster of the new Cecilia Gimenez version of the Ecce Homo.