Alexis has been with BACC since her third-year internship in 1998. In addition to treating paintings and painted objects, she is involved with the technical examination of paintings at BACC, including infrared reflectography, X-radiography, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and cross-section microscopy. Here she answers five questions about being a conservator:
When did you know that you wanted to be an art conservator?
The summer before my fourth year at the University of Virginia, I studied art history and photography in Florence, Italy. There was a huge flood in Florence in 1966 that destroyed or damaged many artworks, so when you walk around the city, there are plaques and reminders of the flood on the streets and in the churches and museums. You are surrounded by stories of loss but also stories of heroic efforts to save and restore the art. While I was there, an Introduction to Restoration class was offered, so I stayed another term and took the class. I was hooked. It was a blend of art and science. It made sense, seeing that my dad was a biochemist/molecular biologist and my mom is an interior designer! It was after this summer abroad that I decided that I wanted to pursue painting conservation as my career.
To date, what is the favorite conservation project that you have worked on?
One of my most memorable projects recently was the conservation of the San Diego Museum of Art’s painting by Francisco de Zurbarán, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist. Examining the painting with infrared reflectography and x-radiography allowed us to see the artist’s process as he changed the composition during the painting’s creation. The treatment involved consolidation of insecure paint and then removing layers of grime, yellowed varnish, wax, and discolored overpaint. I enjoyed working with the Curator, Michael Brown, in deciding the extent of inpainting of the pentimenti (artist changes).
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Painting conservation is about problem solving. We look at the artwork to see how it’s made, to figure out the condition issues, and then to develop a treatment approach. Often times the biggest challenge lies in how to take a layer/s of something (varnish, grime, overpaint, wax, glue) off the painting. It seems simple to say “clean” the painting, but with the many types of art materials used by artists and then the many materials that end up on paintings (either through past restorations or circumstances), it can become quite complicated.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
We get small rewards throughout each painting treatment! Consolidating and setting down raised paint to make it flat again. Removing grime and varnish to reveal the original colors. Seeing the owner’s face when they see the painting after treatment. All in a day's work!
What do you wish that more people knew about conservation work and/or conservators?
I would like people to know that being a conservator takes years of study (including a graduate degree) and experience working with many types of paintings and with experienced mentors. Continuing education to learn new materials and techniques is essential. Unfortunately, conservation is not a field in which you can become certified in any way. Anyone can open up a shop and say that they restore paintings. It is up to the consumer to do their homework on the educational background of the person they are trusting with their artwork.