Tagged: Ask the Art Nurse

Ask the Art Nurse: Stinky Feathers.


I have a random conservation question for you: A friend of mine just returned from an African safari and brought back some fresh guinea fowl feathers from a bird that she shot. She said that the feathers really stink and she’s trying to get the smell to go away. (Ick. Don’t get me started.) She said she’s tried dish soap, laundry soap, Woolite (which seemed to work the best), but they’re still pretty stanky.

Do you have ideas on what would work best without damaging the integrity of the feathers?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Stinky Feathers


Back when I was starting out as a conservator I worked in an ethnographic museum where I recall treating feathers — the most delicate of materials — with the most delicate of techniques. The reason is that any aggressive cleaning strips the feathers of their oils and they are then exposed to damage, drying, and all manner of deterioration. I’ve since gone on to work primarily on detritus and organic matter used in the service of contemporary art, so I thought it best if I posed this question to my pal Dana Moffett, formerly of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. She is now a private conservator working in Washington, D.C., on the artifacts of cultures that have better things to do with skulls than encrust them in diamonds.

After expressing horror at the use of dish soap, laundry soap, and Woolite — which probably completely stripped the feathers of their oils — Dana suggested placing the feathers (properly wrapped, of course, in a few sheets of Japanese paper or acid free tissue) into a sealed container (Ziploc bag, Tupperware) that contains an odor scavenger that will absorb the foul odor, like zeolites, activated charcoal (not the kind with lighter fluid), or even kitty litter (seriously). She also warned that she was not sure how long it would take to work. It all depends on the source of the stench.

If it doesn’t go away, there’s always the possibility of recycling the feathers — perhaps as a fragrant work of contemporary art. The next Whitney Biennial isn’t until 2012. There’s time…

San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: Following up on that work on crumbling drywall.

Back in May, C-Mon reader Luna Park submitted a query to the Art Nurse regarding a work on drywall that she had acquired when the walls of one of her favorite street art galleries were demolished. (Read the original query here.) At the time, Art Nurse was unable to offer knowledgeable advice without seeing the type of damage to the work in question, so Luna submitted an image for review (see below). Now that Art Nurse has had a little time to study the problem, here is her advice:


I have been pondering your wall fragment for weeks now, scratching my head, talking to colleagues, trying to figure out if there’s anything we can tell you that you can do to preserve this piece yourself. What you’ve got is a problem of disaggregation, or in lay-terms: crumbling. The edges are coming apart and something needs to be put on then to keep this from continuing. The problem with the home remedy in this case is that it requires a lot of testing to make sure what you use doesn’t A) make the piece too shiny, or B) stain it and make it look like it’s tied in a yellowing ribbon. Unfortunately, most of the materials we’d use for this aren’t the sorts of things you can pick up at your local hardware store.

This is really tricky conservation work. If you can’t afford professional services at this time, I suggest you get a nice shallow plastic bin (polyethylene, preferably), or an archival cardboard box, and put your beautiful fragment to bed for a while. Who knows? The artist might get on the cover of ARTnews one day and you might have no choice but to hire one of my ilk to fix it for you.

San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: Maintaining fragile works on paper.

First of all, are you a bad or a good nurse? My main question, however, is from a collector/art lover’s angle. I love — absolutely LOVE — works on paper (I admit, it’s a fetish), but I have a dilemma: I’m terrified of placing any of the works near windows lest they are exposed to light and deteriorate.

I’ve heard that sun damage is so gradual that sometimes you don’t even notice the work is damaged until you put it beside another work (like another print from the same series). I properly frame all the work I purchase and use UV Plexiglas. But I hear that those don’t work very well after 5-10 years, since supposedly their effectiveness dwindles. I recently purchased an acrylic work on paper. I love it and have the perfect space for it but it has LOTS of light. Am I safe with acrylic? Also, I have photographs (C-prints). I want to love my art in the open but I fear that my love of art will never step out of the shadows where, at least, I know the art is safe. Am I being paranoid? Is there anything artists should be doing to guarantee their works don’t fade?

– Art lover desperately seeking to bring his art out of the closet

I am a good nurse, here to help you feed your fetishes. In the case of paper conservation — which I studied in graduate school under the phenomenal Antoinette King of MoMA, but abandoned when archeology came a-calling — I believe that a ton, not an ounce, of prevention is warranted. Fortunately, I live a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and have known its chief paper conservator, Janice Schopfer, since she was at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In other words, relax. No more fears or paranoia are warranted. Read on — and let your love step out of the shadows.

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Ask the Art Nurse: All about oils.

My question is kinda no-frills, but I hope you’ll answer it: Is there a definitive conservators’ opinion regarding oil paint on acrylic gesso?

I was told by some old-schooler types in graduate school that the only genuinely archival method for oil painting is rabbit’s skin sizing and oil ground, and that it’ll hurt your success at being collected if you don’t use the ‘archivalest’ of the archival. But Gesso  is so ubiquitous, it seems like it’s impossible for conservators not to have to deal with it.

I’ve heard it has more to do with how you stretch – if you’re making strainers instead of stretchers, the supports can’t move with the painting’s expanding/contracting, so acrylic gesso would actually be more stable in that scenario. Is this true?

- Sam

We at the C-Mon art hospital like to think we know everything about all types of art, but when it comes to matters such as gesso and canvas we like to defer to our  illustrious conservator colleagues who work on paintings. In this case we were fortunate to get some advice from one of the true greats, Will Shank, former chief conservator at SFMOMA, now living the high life in Barcelona. He tells us that using rigid oil paint on flexible acrylic ‘gesso’ preparations is okay according to the experts, but the reverse – acrylic over oil is ‘an absolute no-no.’ He also gives you kudos for recognizing that the problems of bad paint adhesion comes from improper stretching tension. He recommends avoiding strainers and always using expandable stretchers. That will help you keep your paint on the canvas and not on the floor in front of it.

He also points out – and this nurse could not agree more – that the word ‘archival’ is meaningless in terms of oil painting – or bronzes, or plaster, or stone, or for that matter, anything that isn’t specifically made of acid-free materials (like paper).

Rx, San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: Ball of Wax.

I made a sculpture about 4 months ago, mostly comprised of candle wax. I had no idea how to preserve the wax from breaking and melting away if it was put in high temperatures, so i decided to coat it with shellac, primarily out of fear of using resins, due to their toxicity. A few weeks ago i was moving the piece to a different location, left it temporarily outside and realized that the wax was getting soft. Now that i know that the shellac is not working the way I intended it to, I have no idea what i should use to preserve the piece. Whatever material I use, it must be clear, and must protect the piece from melting… Any suggestions?

– Daphne

Good question! This raises one of the most common misconceptions in the art world: whether something made of an inherently soft, degradable, or otherwise delicate/unstable material can be protected by coating it with something. The answer: No. You can’t keep a soft surface from melting in the heat by protecting it with a coating — whether it’s shellac or a synthetic resin. We love the suppleness and depth of wax sculpture just as much as the next art medical professional (think: Medardo Rosso, or the heaving animatronic breasts of Britney Spears at Madame Tussauds). But all waxes, whether paraffin, beeswax or microcrystalline are sensitive to heat.

The only thing you can do to keep it from melting is to keep it cool, that is, indoors and away from heat sources. In the future, if you want to use wax for sculpting, look for wax with a higher melting temperature. If you’re getting your wax at the 99-cent store, try using the ones that don’t have a scent (they tend to be harder). If you don’t mind materials that melt, however, I’d like to recommend lard. If the piece doesn’t work out, you can always cook with it.

– Rx, San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

New feature: Ask the Art Nurse.

Second Chance Nurse, by Richard Prince.

As part of the expanding line of services here at C-Monster.net, we are debuting a regular new feature called Ask the Art Nurse, which will be headlined by the extraordinary San Suzie (who has written on conservation issues on this blog in the past). A sculpture and architectural conservator with 20+ years of experience, San Suzie has restored everything from Civil War firearms to sculptures by Claes Oldenburg to John Lautner’s Chemosphere house to a steel mill’s worth of abstract public art works. As part of her daily grind, she regularly treats pieces that are battered, bug-eaten, cracked or poorly made to begin with.

To help all you genre-busting artiste-types avoid the latter category, she has kindly agreed to let C-Mon‘s readers pick her highly knowledgeable brain. So, if you are in the process of creating a piece, and you don’t know your polymers from your Pearoefoam or want to try welding beer cans or casting in lard, now would be the time to submit your technical questions – before some budget-strapped museum has to contend with your disintegrating piece of brilliance. If sculpture or installation isn’t your specialty, no worries. San Suzie will consult with her extensive cabal of conservator-colleauges, who can let you know what that coat of varnish will do to your oils.

E-mail all queries to suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net. (Do not leave them in the comments below.) San Suzie will choose the best questions and answer them, at periodic intervals, on the blog. If you so desire, your identity will be kept in the strictest confidence.