This is Part II of the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network interview with Grace Jan, the Yao Wenqing Chinese painting conservator at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian (Freer|Sackler). This post focuses on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation initiative in Chinese Art Conservation; please read Part I to find out more about her background and reflections on her training!
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’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. We have an ongoing series for East Asian art and recently started covering Electronic Media.
We continue the East Asian art conservation series with Grace Jan, the Yao Wenqing Chinese painting conservator at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institution (Freer|Sackler). She graduated from the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where she studied paper conservation with a specialization in Chinese mounting from 2003 to 2007. She received a BA in History and Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles.
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’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. This post is continuing our series on East Asian Art Conservation, where we have posts from Sara Ribbans and Yi-Hsia Hsiao.
This post is continuing our series on East Asian Art Conservation with Hsin-Chen Tsai, an Associate Conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the Asian Conservation Studio. In 2008, she graduated from National Tainan University of Arts in Taiwan, where she specialized in Asian paintings conservation. She received a BFA degree in Art Education with a thesis in Art Education from the Department of Art at the National Changhua University of Education.
Hsin-Chen will be presenting at the upcoming 45th AIC Annual Meeting in Chicago on the treatment of the Korean Buddhist Sutra that she mentions here– we invite you to hear more at her presentation!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hanna Höllig, the Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at Bard Graduate Center, has been researching the ethical dilemmas in the preservation of contemporary art, focusing on the artwork of Nam June Paik. In tune with the conference’s theme of Practical Philosophy/Making Conservation Work, she highlighted the point that practice and experience build our theories, and through contemplating theory, we can enhance our practices. It is a co-dependent relationship that requires participation, communal self-reflection, and historical examination.
Her central case study discussed the treatment of Paik’s Canopus (1990) in the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe (ZKM | Center for Art and Media) collection. Unfortunately, Canopus had fallen from the wall during exhibition, severely damaging the television screens and the central hubcap. Höllig was responsible for designing the treatment, which served as a pointed example of the controversy surrounding material replacement in conservation. The television screens that had shattered were generically commercial components, so this substitution was considered acceptable. On the other hand, there were calligraphic inscriptions and a signature by Paik on the original hubcap. Höllig proposed to replace the hubcap with an exact substitute under the condition that the damaged original would be exhibited alongside the recreation, but this was not deemed an acceptable option by the curator. In exhibiting both the recreated piece and the original hubcap, it would have allowed visitors to experience a likeness of the original, but also the physicality of Canopus’ history with the art object as done by Paik’s making.
In teasing apart the two differing responses to the same type of proposal, Höllig is not just proposing an examination of conservation approaches to contemporary art, but this is about highlighting what artists, curators, and conservators identify as the essence of the work. What–and more importantly, how–do we assign these values? In refusing the hubcap replacement and/or the exhibition of the damaged original- precisely where is the essence violated? In any type of art or artifact, what components of replacement, refurbishment, regeneration, repair, etc. are appropriate, and what makes these decisions appropriate? In making alterations to an original piece to “return it to the original state” (or perhaps it should read “acceptable state”), are we approaching the essence or only the aesthetic?
Höllig also points to the concept of conservation as a contextual cultural practice. How do we know we are right, or rather, how conscious are we of the principles that guide us? Conservation is not simply about the physical, but also our connections with the experiences, people, and the content surrounding the things. In our work as conservators, we are in the business of addressing unwanted changes of objects. But, since changes are inevitable, what is our tolerance for it? What kind of change is palatable to our collective modern-day taste? I did not find her philosophical points to be a reprimand of what we do or don’t do as conservators but a call for an honest self-reflection on the influences connected to our treatment decisions. These questions seem to expedited and scrutinized in contemporary art because of the ephemeral and technologically-dependent nature that cannot be addressed by “traditional” methods alone, but these questions are true for any specialty, for any collection.
Angela Campbell, Assistant Conservator in the Department of Paper Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presented the research and treatment of a complete set of Himalayan initiation cards (tsakalis) in their collection. She focused on the condition, consolidation, and loss-compensation techniques done by herself, Rebecca Capua, and Yana van Dyke for this set. In conjunction with the treatments, there was a social media campaign to increase public outreach using this piece. For a great resource on the full treatment details, background, and purpose of these tsakalis, see the three posts available online through the Met blog:
- Eastern Religion Meets Western Science: Conserving Fifteenth-Century Tibetan Initiation Cards
by Angela Campbell, Assistant Conservator, Department of Paper Conservation
- Filling In History: Conserving Fifteenth-Century Tibetan Initiation Cards, Continued
by Rebecca Capua, Assistant Conservator, Department of Paper Conservation
- Evoking the Divine: Mental Purification Using a Tibetan Tsakali Mandala
by Kurt Behrendt, Associated Curator, Department of Asian Art
[includes translations and after treatment images of the rectos and versos of each of the cards]
I appreciated that Campbell addressed concerns of treatment consistency since the twenty-five cards were split among three conservators. Instead of having each conservator just do one treatment step for all the cards, each performed full treatments for 8 to 9 cards in the collection. Discussion was key, particularly in approaching the in-painting, and despite minor personal variations, a cohesive style was achieved.
Other rich questions that came up during the Q&A session focused more on the pre-treatment component of these cards. There was a question regarding the sacred nature impacting treatment decisions, which had only been brought up with the decision to maintain surface residues affiliated with handling. In conjunction with the sacred aspect, another question was raised about outreach and consultation with the surrounding Tibetan community in New York regarding the handling and treatment. While it was unclear if there was any contact before these cards reached the treatment stage, this comes back to a bigger question of who we perceive to be the actual stakeholders of the collections, particularly with cultural properties of living cultures.