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, where we began with Sara Ribbans.  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 second interview, we spoke with Yi-Hsia Hsiao, Assistant Conservator of Chinese Paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  She earned her BA in Fine Art from Tun-Hai University in Taichung, Taiwan and her MA in Asian Painting Conservation from the Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics, Tainan National University of the Arts in Tainan, Taiwan.

ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Yi-Hsia Hsiao (YH): I studied art in high school and majored in Fine Arts in college. Starting out as an art creator and becoming a conservator was quite challenging because it is all about science, and I hadn’t studied chemistry since high school. In my graduate conservation program, I had to eliminate my mindset of being an artist since all I do is conserve other artists’ works.

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
YH: When I was about to graduate from college, I read an article about an owner of a historic house who secretly started to tear it down in the middle of the night before the City Government could list it as a cultural monument. By Taiwanese law, a historic house can be occupied by a family but cannot be remodeled or rebuilt once it is listed as a monument. The news affected me greatly, and I started to think that people either didn’t understand the concept of protecting heritage or didn’t want to. At the time, people could easily lose their cultural heritage by doing nothing. Could the government do something about it? Could I do something to help?

Yi-Hsia Hsiao
Yi-Hsia Hsiao, Assistant Conservator of Chinese Paintings, Cleveland Museum of Art [Photo: Yi-Hsia Hsiao]
I began researching cultural heritage preservation. It led me to research the conservation field to preserve cultural relics and I found the conservation program in Tainan National University of Arts in Tainan, Taiwan. The program had only been running for three years by the time I enrolled in 2002. I thought being a conservator was quite cool, and I began to develop strong sense of my personal mission to protect cultural relics.

ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to follow Chinese art conservation?
YH: Appreciating and creating two-dimensional paintings has been my hobby since I was little. The way black and white ink flows on xuan paper has always been fascinating to me, so I copied Chinese masterpieces to learn how to make the inky gradation and brush strokes. I chose the Asian painting conservation field because I am most familiar with these art-making techniques and materials.

ECPN: What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
YH: My training began with a four-year program at the Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics in the Tainan National University of the Arts. I had to cook wheat starch paste for the senior conservators, wipe the mounting tables, mop the floors, and make tea in the afternoon during break for the first year before doing any hands-on work. The idea behind this model is that chores would teach the students to be patient and calm. During summer breaks, I interned in Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan, recording the condition of Chinese scrolls, and apprenticed at the conservation studio of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, where I honed my hands skills mounting Chinese hanging scrolls, handscrolls, and albums.
The Institute requires students in their fourth year to intern abroad for at least four months and complete a graduate thesis. I chose to intern in the Asian Conservation Studio at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. I worked under Jing Gao, a great Chinese painting conservator trained in both traditional mounting methods and Western treatments of Chinese paintings. After six months in Boston, I returned to Taiwan to work on my thesis on Thangkas.
After graduation, I headed to the United States for a fellowship in the Asian Conservation Studio at the MFA. I worked with the Japanese and Chinese paintings conservators on treatment and research projects, and discussed challenges. I was always encouraged by the conservators there. During my advanced training at the MFA, Jacki Elgar, Head of Asian Conservation and Head of International Projects, Asia, explained that she would like young conservators to broaden their mindset and receive a comprehensive training because Asian paintings conservation is not just about traditional mounting skills.
I eventually became the first Andrew W. Mellon fellow for Chinese paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institutions, where I studied with Xiangmei Gu to refine my mounting skills.
In the Spring 2014, I joined the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) as a Chinese paintings conservator. Here, I have been able to apply the knowledge I have accumulated towards treatment of the Chinese paintings in the CMA’s collections.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
YH: Learning the proper mounting technique for Chinese scrolls is important. A good traditional Chinese mounting scroll has four characteristics: smooth, flat, soft, and thin. A successful mounting requires almost 100 steps. These are basic mounting steps I have to complete before treating any Chinese painting. For example, I have to be trained to lift a very thin and wet xuan paper, which is like a wet toilet paper; to knife-cut a very narrow noodle-like paper strips; to sharpen the knife; to make good quality paste; to masterfully handle the paste brush and smooth brush; to smooth the painting to xuan paper in order to bond them together well; to tone mounting silk and xuan paper evenly; and to sew scroll cords and to trim scroll wooden rollers.
Understanding both the Chinese language and painting techniques is also important for this field. Familiarity with all Chinese paintings techniques from masterpieces is helpful to understanding a painting before treatment. For example, I know the technique of sizing xuan paper, and I am able to read the uses of brushstrokes and Chinese pigments and dyestuff. This makes it easier to develop a conservation treatment plan.

ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
YH: I recently remounted an album leaf from the Song dynasty. It is a painting on silk called Watching the Deer by a Pine-Shaded Stream and is attributed to Ma Yuan. There was a poorly-adhered silk lining underneath the painting, and it was beginning to delaminate because—unlike paper— silk doesn’t bond well to silk. If I didn’t remount it, eventually the painting silk would become completely detached. I took off all the linings and infilled the losses. Infilling silk is quite challenging because I had to line up the woven threads of silk.
One of the challenges of treating Asian paintings is the lack of aged silk for infilling losses, an issue that has been raised by senior conservators. Mr. Jiahau Dai from the Shanghai Museum was generous enough to donate his personal collection of aged silk to the CMA. To address this issue, some labs are building their own aging chambers instead of purchasing very expensive aged silks from Japan. I hope to develop one at the CMA.

Before and After Treatment [Cleveland Museum of Art, 1997.88. Photos: Joan Neubecker]

ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
YH: Chinese painting mounters use both traditional and modern pigments and dyestuffs, which range in stability. There are three essential colors used: ochre, indigo, and gamboge. I have been tracking the deterioration of certain colors on Chinese paintings in the CMA collections, such as gamboge and indigo. I have found that most Chinese painting mounters use gamboge to dye the paper and mounting silk. I have noticed the inpainting areas and the border silks of treated paintings turn a darker reddish tone over time due to the disappearing yellow. I have been trying to use less gamboge and more yellow ochre instead, which might be considered non-traditional.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
YH: Learn how to make tea if you are going to learn in the traditional Chinese studio. Just kidding…
Pursue your dream even if you know it is going to be a rough path. And once you are in– practice, practice, and practice. Let me share an embarrassing story. One day, while I was in my scroll mounting class in conservation school, I made a mistake with a silk lining. Other classmates had already moved onto the next step, but I had to redo the lining again—which requires several days to prepare the silk on the drying board. I decided to redo it, but because I was so worried that I was behind, I couldn’t do it correctly and it was getting late. I cried and wanted to give up, but I finally stood up and got things done. Practice makes perfect.
Also, coming to the States to pursue my dream was a difficult path due to the language barrier. I didn’t have a high level of English communication when I first came to the States for my internship in Boston. I began to take ESL, pronunciation, and writing classes. It took time but it helped me to adopt the culture and express myself in the field.

ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.
YH: I think art conservation is the only career in this world that can recollect the time lapsed. It lets me, in preserving and conserving, to find the meaning of being, and revive the lost lives…