45th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, June 1, “Sidewalks, Circles, and Stars: Reviving the Legacy of Sari Dienes,” by Samantha Sheesley

“Marcy,” Sari Dienes, mid-1950s

As a library conservator, I enjoy breaking out of my niche by attending art-related talks, because it gets me back in touch with my roots as an artist once upon a time. I knew Samantha’s talk was not to be missed. She has shown through previous research that the conservation of modern and contemporary art on paper is exciting, as you often have a more direct link to the artists when treating their work. While the Hungarian-born artist Sari Dienes (1898-1992) is no longer living, I was confident Samantha would still get to know the intricacies of this unique artist thoroughly. There has never been a better, more urgent time to focus on the influence and mastery of women artists as it is now, in our current political climate, where suppression of the female voice rises as a concern once again. Samantha’s timely and engaging talk grabbed my attention not only for its focus on an unsung 20th century female artist but for the way Samantha, paper conservator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), throws herself into her projects wholeheartedly.

By now many colleagues have heard about Samantha’s research and treatment of original artwork by the tattoo artist “Sailor Jerry” during her time as paper conservator at CCAHA. I admired how much her work on this project became a part of her, literally and professionally. The tattoos she took away as a permanent “souvenir” of this work, on her own skin, really left an impact on me. Having overlapped with her in grad school at Buffalo, I remember how much Samantha loves her work and shows a special curiosity. Samantha’s project on Sari Dienes’ large-scale rubbings was no exception.

While Dienes worked in many mediums and styles throughout her lifetime, Samantha presented Dienes’ rubbings of manhole covers, which she created using brayer-applied ink on Webril – a material used in the medical field as padding between skin and cast. While Webril today is commonly 100% cotton, it was not in the past, and the fiber composition of the Webril Dienes used was not recorded. True to her immersive spirit, Samantha travelled to the Sari Dienes Foundation in Pomona, NY, where she was able to collect historic samples of materials from the artist’s collection to use for testing and analysis. She explained that identification is not resolved as she seeks colleagues with fiber samples she might use for comparison, since her reference library did not provide a match to her FTIR analysis.

Samantha Sheesley creates a rubbing of a manhole cover in the style of Dienes

In her presentation, Samantha led the audience on a manhole scavenger hunt through the streets of NYC, where she traced Dienes’ steps at the artist’s preferred working time, Sundays at 5am. Samantha wondered how Dienes navigated the city streets with all her required bulky supplies, and explained that Jasper Johns sometimes served as her assistant. Dienes would talk to people passing by on the street as she worked, which is inevitable in the extroverted city of New York. To get a sense of the physical work required, Samantha produced rubbings in the same manner as the artist.

It’s impressive how well-connected Dienes was to artists of the time, but because she was a woman, she was not well-liked or accepted by the many of her male contemporaries. Jackson Pollock spoke poorly of her, but she collaborated with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for an exhibit in the Bonwit Teller department store in 1955. The VMFA acquired two of the manhole rubbings that were at Bonwit Teller, which were in poor condition. One of the pieces Samantha focused on is titled “Marcy.” It was stapled to an acidic cardboard backing, which subsequently discolored the Webril, along with displaying many other condition problems.

Samantha Sheesley treats “Marcy” at the VMFA

The goal was to repair Dienes’ work in order to restore her legacy and display all the manhole rubbings together again. After much testing on samples, Samantha decided to wash the delicate Webril supports using wet Tech Wipe, and created over 70 inserts using acrylic-toned Hanji adhered with methyl cellulose. Pastel pencils were used for visual integration. The work was logistically challenging and time consuming, to say the least, but the audience was able to see clearly how much care was taken with excellent results depicted in Samantha’s treatment photos.

I was thrilled to be exposed to an artist I never heard of, but who was in fact so very influential. Samantha explained that Dienes’ work not only influenced Rauschenberg and Johns, but was associated with Fluxus artists such as a personal favorite, Naim June Paik. Dienes believed any material could be used to create a work of art and to end her presentation, Samantha shared an inspiring Dienes quote that deserves to be passed along: “Spirit lives in everything. It has no age, no color, no sex.” Samantha should feel proud of sharing the life and work of a woman who influenced many, while standing in the shadows of history. One of our greatest responsibilities and joys as conservators is to repair artifacts so that silenced voices can be heard once again. Samantha continues this charge with admirable determination.

44th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper, May 16: “Watercolor Pencils: Composition and Conservation Concerns,” presented by Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic

It always amazes me how much we have still to learn about various types of media. The presentation by Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic underscored how little we still know about watercolor pencils (also known as aquarelle or water soluble pencils).

Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic
Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic present their research on watercolor pencils

Water color pencils first appeared during the 1920s, with Staedtler being the first to mention them in 1928. They are related to copy pencils, which contain a water soluble dye and were introduced in the late nineteenth century.
In their study, Lauren and Natasa and their coauthors, Laura Hashimoto, Michael Doutre, Kaslyne O’Connor and Rosaleen Hill, examined four products: Reeves watercolor pencils, Staedtler karat aquarelle 125, Staedtler ergosoft aquarelle, and Derwent watercolor pencils. These were first analyzed using mid-IR spectroscopy, which revealed that each of the products had the same general composition. All contained clay, water-soluble wax, a polysaccharide binder, and colorants. The wax was further revealed to be a modified polyethylene glycol, or mPEG.
The second phase of the project involved testing samples to determine the impact of conservation treatments and solvents. The researchers drew lines with watercolor pencils onto Windsor & Newton watercolor pen and ink paper that was subsequently cut into 14 sets of inch-long strips. They tested four colors – red, blue, grey, and black – for each product. Of 14 watercolor pencil test strips, seven were stored in the dark (that is, they were not aged), while seven were artificially aged at 95°C and 50% RH for 96 hours. They were then tested for reactivity with water, ethanol, acetone, and toluene immersion for 5 minutes each, non-contact exposure to 100% RH for an hour, and smudging with a smudge stick, with additional samples retained as controls. Color change was measured with a Minolta chromometer, with readings taken thrice for each testing area.
Red watercolor pencil was most sensitive to immersion
Red watercolor pencil was most sensitive to immersion

Their results showed that exposing watercolor pencils to wet treatments is exactly as problematic as one might assume. Aged and unaged samples both experienced significant bleeding when immersed, particularly undergoing aqueous immersion. Of all colors, red had the most dramatic response to immersion. Immersion treatments also resulted in color shifts, with polar solvents causing greater shifts in color than non-polar solvents. However, some of the color change was due to change in the color of the paper.
Humidification appeared to have no effect; however, the researchers did not dry the paper under pressure, and it is possible that there may have been some off-set of color if they had done so. All media was affected by mechanical smudging, although aged media was affected to a smaller degree.
This talk raised a lot of interesting questions, and the discussion following the presentation suggested avenues for further research. One attendee asked when mPEG was introduced, raising the idea that the composition of these pencils has likely changed over time, while others suggested testing the solubility of colors in xylene, or testing the pencil lead directly. This research will be continuing at Queens University, and I am excited to see where it will lead.
Author’s Note: The original version of this blogpost omitted the names of Michael Doutre and Kaslyne O’Connor. The author apologizes for the omission.

41st Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, June 1, “Testing the Waters: Applying New Techniques to the Cleaning of Acrylic Paint Film by Amy Hughes and Daria Keynan”

New York-based paper conservator Daria Keynan and Amy Hughes, third-year graduate student at NYU Institute of Fine Arts, shared exciting new contemporary cleaning techniques that have the potential for more effective and efficient treatment of paper-based objects by custom-matching the pH and conductivity modular stock solutions to the original object. This presentation was a wonderful and inspiring cross-specialty exploration of how paintings conservation techniques can be applied to paper conservation – and who doesn’t want more tricks up their sleeve?
Keynan was first introduced to the concept at the 2011 CAPS (Cleaning of Acrylic Painted Surfaces) workshop at the Museum of Modern Art. (I am now kicking myself for thinking that these workshops wouldn’t necessarily apply to my work as a book and paper conservator, so jealous!) To date there have been four innovative series of CAPS workshops supported by the Getty Conservation Institute to further the dialogue between theory and practice among conservation scientists and conservators as well as to introduce the concept of modular cleaning systems. Struck by her experience at the 2011 CAPS workshop and impressed by their use for treating acrylic paint films on art on paper, Keynan has further explored the use of pH and conductivity customization for other areas of paper conservation.
The CAPS workshop introduced several different cleaning techniques to minimize removal of surfactants when cleaning acrylic film surfaces. Acrylic paint and modern materials are scary (my word, not theirs.) Emulsions are often complex with many proprietary and artist-introduced ingredients. Colors react differently after drying, in treatment, and as they age. Some colors may be more sensitive to chemical and mechanical cleaning than others. Surfactants and other soft solids may never solidify, creating a tacky surface that can attract dust and grime. Conservation treatment, particularly aqueous treatment or mechanical cleaning with damp cotton swabs, can introduce immediate disfiguration like abrasion or swelling. Readily soluble surfactants can leach to the paint film surface or verso of the paper substrate. Treatment can also jumpstart deterioration that is not apparent until the future due to unknown chemical and mechanical consequences.
Of the many cleaning techniques available within contemporary conservation, Hughes and Keynan limited their presentation to the customization of pH and conductivity as a more finely-tuned and safer aqueous cleaning technique. They shared their methods by highlighting the treatment of works of art on paper brought to the Daria Keynan Paper Conservation in Manhattan for treatment where adjusted water – tweaking the pH and conductivity of the deionized water – was a key factor of success.

HughesKeynan_slide14_2013BPGIn the Garden
(1986) by Paula Rego was surface cleaned to reduce dust and embedded grime altering the surface sheen. After dry cleaning with cosmetic sponges, Hughes tested various acrylic paint colors for pH and conductivity testing. Cylindrical pellets of cast agarose gel (recipe and supply information to be published in their BPG Annual post-print) were uniformly shaped with a medical-grade biopsy punch. (Heed Hughes’ warning, online image searches for “biopsy punch” are not for the weak-stomached!) The agarose pellet, acting like a poultice, was placed in contact with the acrylic paint film for 45 seconds to absorb the surface pH and conductivity. Agarose was selected because it imbibes the surface readings without visibly swelling the paint with excess moisture as in more aggressive techniques like local, direct application of deionized water. Keynan explained that the contact time of the agarose pellet can be matched to the estimated treatment time so that testing parameters can meet real-world treatment situations, increasing the predictability and reproducibility of testing results.
HughesKeynan_slide15_2013BPGThe pellet was transferred from the paper surface to the well of a pocket-sized, hand-held pH meter (Horiba Laqua pH Tester from Cole-Parmer) to record the pH of the paint surface. A droplet of deionized water was then placed on the pellet and transferred to another pocket-sized, hand-held conductivity meter (Horiba B-171 Twin Conductivity/Salinity Pocket Tester from Cole-Parmer) to record the conductivity of the paint surface. (As someone who absolutely dreads calibrating our cumbersome pH meter I was overjoyed to hear how easy these were to use – my purchase order request is already submitted.)
The conservators used the recorded pH and conductivity for a given area of the painted surface to identify the optimal working solution for cleaning. They selected from among a variety of premixed stock solutions that were created according to the CAPS workshop directions using deionized water, glacial acetic acid, and ammonium hydroxide in a range of ph 5-8 and conductivity 1000-6000 µS (micro Siemens.) Once mixed, the stock solutions can be stored in the refrigerator for up to several months. Keynan also reported that they often add several drops of an antimicrobial preservative for a longer shelf life.
The embedded material and dust on In the Garden released easily with 3-4 passes of lightly damp, pre-blotted cotton swab rolled over the surface. Hughes warned that since acrylic film is susceptible to abrasion it is important to monitor the paint surface during treatment. Cotton might not be appropriate for all acrylic surfaces so additional experiments with different swab materials may be useful. Similar success was seen in the mold removal and stain reduction of Maquette for Smoking Cigarette Relief (1983) by Tom Wesselmann.
Since Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, Keynan’s studio has seen many complex treatments because of the unusual and unknown composition of the storm water which was often contaminated by sewage (uh, gross.) Many of the paper-based objects were stained with tidelines that were difficult to remove and fluoresced brightly under UV. Standard paper conservation techniques often visibly removed the tidelines but were deemed unsuccessful since under UV they shifted along the paper fibers or sank but were not completely removed from the paper support. She related that altering the pH and conductivity of her treatment water dramatically improved treatment results. Removal of the fluorescing blue tidelines (both external and internal) was achieved by local application of the adjusted water and using fumed silica poultices to block the formation of new tidelines.
HughesKeynan_slide34_2013BPGThe last example Keynan shared was a sample of naturally aged 2-ply paper board. (This was exciting, anyone else ever stare blankly at a nasty tideline on an illustration board and just sigh?) Traditional and adjusted treatment waters were applied with cotton swabs in several passes to clean the surface with varying results. Traditional deionized water cleaned less and was uneven, leaving a soft and vulnerable surface. The solution set at pH 6.6 and 6,000 µS glided more easily and had more even results. It also felt more controllable when working. The third sample solution set to pH 5.5 and 14,000 µS gave the most effective cleaning but in real life would probably not need three passes. After drying, the surface readings for all three areas had almost identical conductivity and pH readings.
Keynan concluded that by matching a pH- and conductivity-adjusted solution to the surface of the object it is possible to create a near chemical equilibrium at the surface to eliminate leaching from or depositing into the paint film. In treatment, using adjusted solution equals maximized cleaning efficiency with less wetting out of substrates, less pigment transfer, less repeated action, less loss of surface texture, and reduced distortion of the working area. Conservators have always adjusted pH for various uses, but by measuring the conductivity we can tailor our treatments to the physical needs of the object material with more refinement and subject it to less invasive treatment. Adjusted waters are an incredibly useful tool for improving and refining treatments in our conservation practice.
Hughes and Keynan’s presentation was an approachable and exciting take on the contemporary research going on in the field of conservation science and paintings conservation, especially as led by Chris Stavroudis (freelance paintings conservator in Los Angeles) and Richard Wolbers (Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation) in, well, all things related to cleaning painted surfaces and the Modular Cleaning Program.
Other presentations at the AIC meeting in Indianapolis such as “Mass Spectrometric Imaging of Acrylic Emulsion Paint Films: Engineering a Microemulsion-Based Cleaning Approach” (Paintings + Research and Technical Studies Thursday, May 30) show that the MCP and CAPS research continues. During the question-and-answer period Dr. Anthony Lagalante (Villanova University) shared that he and Stavroudis had recently recorded a video about using and calibrating the meters – it was on the cutting room floor, but will be posted to the CAPS website soon. Lagalante also sent me a link to their illuminating Studies in Conservation article that is currently available as a pre-print:

C.E. Dillon, A.F. Lagalante and R.C. Wolbers “ Aqueous cleaning of acrylic emulsion paint films. The effect of solution pH, conductivity and ionic strength on film swelling and surfactant removal” Studies in Conservation 57(1), (2014). http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/sic/pre-prints/2047058412Y.0000000076

The concept presented by Hughes and Keynan in “Testing the Waters” has the potential for wide application for all book and paper conservators. Working with stock solutions is a fast and economical lab practice. Customizing treatment solutions increases the workability and effectiveness of the treatment. Many of us in the room instantly coveted the easy-to-use digital meters as we thought of the hassle of calibrating traditional models. I’m intrigued by how this research can be applied to aqueous treatments meant to introduce alkaline reserves to acidic paper.
This was a welcome multi-disciplinary presentation that encouraged conservators from other specialty groups like PSG and RATS to attend the BPG program. I am not alone in hoping for more presentations like it at future meetings so we can all benefit from the exciting things happening in all areas of our conservation community.