ECPN Interviews: East Asian Art Conservation

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professional Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservators in these specialties.  We are kicking off the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation.  We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservators and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.
In our first interview, we spoke with Sara Ribbans, Assistant Asian Paintings Conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  She earned her BFA from York University and Master’s of Art Conservation from Queen’s University where she concentrated on paper conservation.

Sara Ribbans - Assistant Asian Paintings Conservator, Cleveland Museum of Art [Photo: Howard Agriesti]
Sara Ribbans – Assistant Asian Paintings Conservator, Cleveland Museum of Art [Photo: Howard Agriesti]

ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sara Ribbans (SR): I began my training in paper conservation but by the end of my program I was intent on traveling to Japan and concentrating on Asian paintings conservation. I had never really traveled much prior to getting into conservation, but throughout my Master’s degree, I had never stayed in one place longer than 9 months so the idea of packing up and moving to Japan was not strange. I helped reconstruct a section of a 400 year old castle, restored the wall paintings in a large Buddhist temple, and remounted hanging scrolls, handscrolls, folding screens, and panels. It gave me the opportunity for a great deal of hands on work and the ability to create something in the process, which–coming from a fine arts degree–really appealed to me.
ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
SR: While I was studying fine arts, I had come to realize that I really wanted to learn more about techniques and materials, not just what made a pleasing composition. Luckily, York University in Toronto, Canada, had a course on historical techniques taught by Srebrenka Bogovic-Zeskoski who had studied paintings conservation. Throughout the course, she would mention this idea of the permanence and degradation of materials and the conservation work done to preserve different artworks. It was the first time I had even heard of art conservation, and I quickly decided that I was more suited to conserving artwork than I was to creating a career out of being an artist.

Final Lining Replacement [Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015.85; Photo: Joan Neubecker]
Final Lining Replacement [Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015.85; Photo: Joan Neubecker]
ECPN: Of all specializations you could choose from, what contributed to your decision to follow Japanese art conservation specifically?
SR: The only way that I really became aware of Japanese paintings conservation was through the tools used in paper conservation. We would have lectures on Japanese papermaking, use Japanese brushes when pasting out paper, and even wheat starch paste comes from the Japanese tradition. But what really pushed me to learn more was a really difficult lining of a large poster. It was clear that while paper conservators knew the theory of lining an artwork on paper, the technique was very rarely practiced therefore complications were hard to deal with. I decided to do an internship with a Japanese paintings conservator to get a better grounding in the materials, tools, and techniques that had found their way into paper conservation. I loved the work so much, though, that I never looked back.
ECPN:What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
SR: I started as a Fine Arts student at York University, Toronto, Canada. From there I got my chemistry requirements from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada and Athabasca University, Edmonton, Canada, before doing my Master’s in Art Conservation at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada where I concentrated in paper conservation. During my Master’s degree I did internships at the National Archives in Kew, England, the Oxford Conservation Consortium in Oxford, England, and Nishio Conservation Studio in Washington, D.C. Through this last internship, I was introduced to Japanese paintings conservators, which led to a one year apprenticeship with Kentaro Tominaga in Kumamoto, Japan. This was unpaid, but teaching English at night and on the weekends helped me pay my way. When my apprenticeship was complete, he introduced me to the studio where he had trained, and I found my first job as a Japanese paintings conservator at Usami Shokakudo Co. Ltd. in Kyoto, Japan.
ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
SR: While a grounding in paper conservation was really important there are aspects of Asian paintings conservation that incorporate objects and textiles as well. Carpentry, or an ability to work with wood, and sewing are actually two skills that are very useful to have when it comes to Asian paintings and their mountings. The lattice cores in screens and panels are made out of wood, as are the roller rods and hanging rods. This means that you need to be able to saw, plane, whittle, sand, and generally manipulate wood. Certain parts of the scrolls are sewn, such as the decorative hanging strips at the top of the hanging scroll. If you have never done any of these things then developing the skills while also learning all the parts to mounting Asian paintings can be time consuming.
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
SR: Right now I am fully concentrating on the remounting of a portrait painting on silk from the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). This painting has been lined overall with silk rather than paper, probably as a quick and easy way of compensating for loss to the silk substrate. The problem is that silk-to-silk adhesion is poor and therefore the lining delaminated. The mounting was also quite soiled and worn. Over the next couple of months, I will be doing a dry lining removal and filling the losses with silk which has been artificially aged. I am also working with a silk weaver in Japan to create a reproduction of the gold brocade used for the inner border of the scroll mounting as the pattern is no longer available and we like to maintain as much of the old mounting aesthetic as possible.
Remounted Hanging Scroll [Cleveland Museum of Art, 1985.273; Photo: Joan Neubecker]
Remounted Hanging Scroll [Cleveland Museum of Art, 1985.273; Photo: Joan Neubecker]
ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
SR: I feel that Asian paintings conservation, whether it is the Chinese or Japanese tradition, is not very well understood and could benefit from some promotion to the general public and to students interested in entering the field of conservation. There is a great deal of Asian art in collections throughout the world, and there are very few people who understand their construction and are trained to deal with their deterioration. This does not always mean packing up your life and traveling to Asia for extended training to become a mounter as well as a conservator. There is also the need for conservators who understand the materials and the construction of Asian paintings who may not be able to remount a painting but who are able do remedial treatments, such as flattening and reinforcing creases, consolidating pigment, replacing cords, etc.
ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
SR: Everyone who has entered this specialization, both conservation and Asian paintings conservation, has done so from such different directions that it is hard to hand out advice. I would say to talk to as many people in the field as you can because they can be a great help in getting you where you are going. Spending some time interning with a studio in the US can be a great introduction to the field and will give you necessary skills to draw on. Look for grants and scholarships to help you start out. There is a developing interest to train young and emerging conservators in the specialization of Asian paintings, both in the Chinese and Japanese traditions. Finally, getting a basis in the language of the country you are moving to would be really useful as English speakers are rare. I managed to learn Japanese as I went along, and picked up a lot of technique from watching, but the ability to communicate effectively would have certainly made things go more smoothly.
ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.
SR: I would just like to say that anyone who is interested in becoming an Asian paintings conservator should go for it and not let themselves be discouraged. It is, of course, a lot of work, and living in a different country is challenging–but I would say that all of the students emerging from programs throughout the US are very capable of facing challenges. It is an incredible experience and will add to their skills no matter what they end up choosing.