Sunday, December 13, 2015

Adventures in Art Conservation

I have been working, for the past two years, on gaining experience and completing pre-requisites for an art conservation graduate program.  The road is long, difficult and quite narrow.  For someone like me, realizing after undergrad that this is the career for me, there are classes to take and experience (mostly unpaid) to obtain.  What this means for me, with my BA in studio art, is taking 20 credits of college level chemistry and completing the 400+ hours of practical experience in a conservation lab.  Conservation is a very small field; there isn't a huge demand for it, worldwide.  Most jobs, found in museums and cultural centers, are hard to find.  Instead of taking the for-profit school approach of who cares if they'll get a job, let's collect their tuition (ahem, art majors...), the few institutions in the US (yes, 3) with a graduate program accept a small number of students per year, taking only the best of the best.  This means competition is fierce.  And while I think this is a good way to weed out those who aren't truly serious, it's nonetheless, daunting for those of us who are.

So here I am, 15/20 credits in chemistry under my non-science-brain-ed belt, almost a year of interning at a fantastic regional conservation center (MACC), learning so much, applying most of it and after every shift interning, feeling validation that this is my path.  Most of the work I've been assisting with cannot be shared with the public as it comes from private and museum collections.  One thing I can write about, though, is compo (sometimes called ornamental composition).  Compo is basically a compound of different glues/adhesives and chalk that, when made correctly and molded, makes up most of the fine ornate frames we see today.  Here's a great example thanks to a Google image search:

This specific frame, here, is in need of some tlc restoration.  The white pieces you can see, where the gilding has chipped off, is the compo (the white is a gesso, layered over the compo, allowing gilding to adhere).  To restore this frame, one would take a mold of the pattern with a silicone mold, cook up some compo, allow it to set, and affix compo to frame, re-gesso, re-guild and, voila, good as new!

I needed a project that would satisfy an organic chemistry lab that I had missed.  This idea of compo was very interesting to me, so I decided to take a mold and try my hand.  The wonderful conservators (in the object lab at MACC, who have been graciously inserting knowledge into my brain for the past 9 months) told me everything I needed to know and were on hand just in case I blew anything up.

So here I am in the lab....

Two hot plates (living on the edge!)
Silicone mold
Initial mixing with the chalk
Compo in the mold

Final product and original mold -- SUCCESS!

It was pretty satisfying to have a really wonderfully successful product on my first try!  The only thing that I didn't do well was not casting the mold quickly enough.  The 2-part silicone mold making material set faster than I was ready for.  This is why the cracks appeared in the mold, and why they translated onto my piece of compo.  The compo piece remained quite flexible for almost a day before it hardened beyond any serious bending.  This is one of the wonderful characters of this mixture, it holds a pattern, yet, for hours afterward can be manipulated to fit the desired shape completely.  

Not only was this project an amazing hands-on learning experience, but my lab write up (including illustrating the chemical reactions and explaining a knowledge of the properties of the molecules and why they react the way they do together) got full marks!  Conservator-in-training success.  One more positive step on the way!!