Tagged: Conservation

Don’t Throw It Out: The Art Nurse on saving art in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The Brooklyn studio of artist Leon Reid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Reid, like so many artists and galleries in the city, had much of his work destroyed by the unprecedented surge. (Image courtesy of Reid.)

By now we are all too familiar with the path of destruction that Hurricane Sandy wreaked on art studios, galleries and collections throughout the Eastern seaboard. A number of organizations, including the American Institute for Conservation have responded to the call and on Sunday, November 4th, MoMA’s conservators and the AIC’s Collections Emergency Response Team will be offering a presentation on saving flood-damaged artworks. (Things get rolling at noon.) MoMA has also posted a document with guidelines for dealing with art that is damaged by everything from fires to flooding.

For those who cannot attend the MoMA session, or who simply want some solid advice on dealing with a drowned studio, we have assembled a list of conservators who are willing to be e-mailed or called for advice. These conservators, which include Rustin Levenson (paintings), Joseph Sembrat (sculpture, architecture, objects), Stephanie Hornbeck (objects, textiles), and yours truly, the Art Nurse (sculpture, architecture, objects ) have all had firsthand experience with hurricane, flood, and earthquake recovery for collections and historic structures in Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Together we have put together a few initial guidelines for addressing the daunting act of sorting through mud and murky water to rescue works of art.

  1. CAREFULLY ASSESS BEFORE TAKING ACTION. Don’t wander into the water unless you know it’s safe to do so and you won’t get electrocuted or sliced up by broken glass. Before you start moving things, take some photos of the room and anything you can get in close up. This is essential for claims from your insurance company or agencies offering assistance.
  2. GET THE WORK OUT OF THE WATER. Make a plan first for what you are going to move and where it is going to go. Remember that wet things weigh a heck of a lot more than dry ones. Make sure you know where you will put things before you move them and don’t lift anything bigger than you can safely carry. Clear a path to your destination before moving a work of art and make sure the spot is clean, dry and free of mold. For canvases or larger works, have more than one person available to move things. If the pieces are hung on the wall, leave them in place while you clear the water off the ground. If large sculptures are on the floor and can’t be lifted onto a table, think about sacrificing some of those fat art books to set them on to get air moving underneath them. Wet works on paper are the most vulnerable so make sure you do not lift things that are too wet without sliding something underneath them. A sheet of Plexiglas is great for this. If all you have is cardboard, put a sheet of plastic between the cardboard and the work on paper or you risk staining the work. Remove wet works on paper from their frames to get air circulating around the paper and remove any wet mattes. Try not to stack things. If you have no choice, interleave with clean paper.
  3. CLEAN THE ROOM. Once the works are out of immediate danger, i.e. not sitting in water or mud, the next task is to get the rest of the space as clean as possible and get air circulating around the room. Mold spores are always in the air. Whether they bloom depends entirely on the humidity in the room. Therefore your next task is to get the air circulating and the humidity down. If you have a dehumidifier, use it. If not, use a fan or whatever will move air around. Mold likes darkness and heat as well, so keep your shades and windows open if that’s all you have to work with. Once the air is moving and you can get air circulating around the works themselves, clean the room as best as possible. Sweep, mop, scrub — whatever it takes to get the dirt and muck off of the floor and walls. Remove carpeting and any upholstered materials that will keep the room damp. While you should NEVER use disinfectant sprays directly on a work of art, spraying a floor or walls that have been soaked is a good way to keep mold growth down. If no disinfectant spray is available, bleach can be used also on floors and walls, but you have to be extremely careful not to let any splash onto artworks.
  4. TAKE STOCK. Now your room is clean and you have a bunch of ruined-looking works. Make lists of the works, dividing them by what appears to be wrong with them. Anything that was wet will need to be cleaned, because any water it touched was either brackish, salty or filthy — or various combinations thereof. Separate works by material (painting, works on paper, bronze, stone sculpture, plaster, mixed media with old shoes and cigarette butts, etc.) and list them by whether they were wet or simply exposed to humidity.
  5. CALL A CONSERVATOR. If you haven’t done so already, this would be a good time to call or e-mail a conservator. At the bottom of this piece are contact details for all of the aforementioned conservators, as well as  others who have experience with flood and water damage. While we are an ornery and overworked bunch, we are all here to help at this point, and all of us on this list would be willing to answer e-mails with questions. If it’s a crisis, we’ll even take phone calls. If you can’t reach one of us, use the AIC’s website How to Find a Conservator function to contact a local person. It as advisable to request a professional who has hands-on experience with flood or storm damage.

Naturally, there are differences of opinion on what to do next, and of course a conservator’s direct advice is the best path at this point. But here are a few tips that can serve as triage in the meantime:

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Haiti Report: Saving a country’s priceless murals.

Cracks in the Wall: Philomé Obim’s Last Supper at the Sainte Trinité Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, display the damage of last year’s devastating quake. (All photos by San Suzie.)

Almost one year ago today, I set foot in Haiti for the first time — six months after a 7.0 earthquake had practically leveled the capital. I was in Port-au-Prince at the request of the Smithsonian, with my colleague Viviana Dominguez, a painting conservator, to examine what remained of a series of mural paintings at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. At that point, I was quite familiar with the televised images of the devastation. I had seen the bodies lifted from the rubble and the shots of the crumpled presidential palace. But nothing quite prepared me for the state of need we saw as we drove out of the airport and into the snarl of traffic.

Everywhere around Port-au-Prince there are reminders of the devastation.

Six months after the earthquake, much of Port-au-Prince remained in ruins. Though the air was thick with the dust of demolition, many collapsed buildings still lay where they fell on January 12. The road from the airport to the cathedral was a sea of tents where people lived without running water and electricity. We saw fax machines and barber chairs set up along the sidewalk, people bathing out of buckets, cooking over charcoal fires and washing clothes in muddy urban rivulets. Because so many roads continued to be blocked by rubble, it took nearly an hour to drive just a few miles.

Sainte Trinité, as it is locally known, had once been a simple but beautiful art deco structure. In the 1950s, the building’s walls were decorated with 14 murals depicting New Testament scenes. Done by a collective of Haitian artists associated with Port-au-Prince’s Centre D’Art, these energetic, color-saturated paintings quickly became something of an international sensation — one of the must-see sites for Haitian painting. For locals, they had a deep spiritual importance because they used Haitian people and settings to illustrate the life of Christ. This went well beyond the skin color of the biblical figures. For example, in Rigaud Benoit’s Nativity, palm trees, a thatched building, baskets of pineapple, and a waterfall that bears a distinct resemblance to a local pilgrimage site frame the baby Jesus. In Wedding at Cana, artist Wilson Bigaud set the miracle of turning water into wine in a Haitian hilltop village, complete with musicians playing conga drums and flutes of local origin. (See a pre-earthquake view of some of the murals here.)

The remains of Sainte-Trinité, Port-au-Prince. At rear, Prefete Duffaut's 'Native Procession' sits behind scaffolding.

When we arrived at Holy Trinity in the summer of 2010, both Benoit’s and Bigaud’s murals had been reduced to fragments the size of my hand. Gone also were paintings of the Annunciation, Temptation of the Lord, and Crucifixion, not to mention the building’s walls, roof, and pillars. Only three murals — Castera Bazile’s Baptism, Prefete Duffaut’s Native Procession and Philomé Obin’s three-walled Last Supper — clung precariously to walls that looked about as stable as the piles of debris that surrounded them. Doused by rain and baked by the sun for six months, the paintings were starting to fade and powder. They had to come down immediately. The question was how to do it without destroying them.

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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: A crumbling work on drywall


I’m an avid follower of C-Monster and have an art conservation query: Before shuttering their doors for good, my favorite street art gallery in Brooklyn invited the public to help demolish some of their walls. As the walls were painted with murals by notable artists, this was an attractive proposition.

Happily, I am now in possession of a heavy, largish chunk of painted drywall. However, the drywall is awfully fragile – the piece was not so delicately hammered out of the wall – and I’m wondering how best to stabilize it and prevent further crumbling. It goes without saying that I do not have a museum-scale art conservation budget.

Your advice, please?



My two favorite things on earth are hunks of concrete buildings and graffiti, so you are talking about restoring something quite dear to my heart. It would be helpful to know if the damage you are talking about consists of fragmenting edges or wholesale cracking of the piece itself. If it’s the former, what we conservators would do would be to consolidate the edges of the fragment. This means applying some kind of adhesive in thinned down form that would solidify the edge and keep if from crumbling. The trick is to do this using something that will not stain or damage the original and — most importantly — could be removed and redone. In other words, making it reversible, in case you screw it up.

If you are talking about big breaks in the piece, however, then you are looking at something called a structural repair — and that requires a bit more thinking through. So first tell me which it is. Also tell me if the area to be repaired has paint on it or not. (Or feel free to send me a link to a photo.) And then I can give the patient a proper diagnosis.

San Suzie

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

In L.A.: Resurrecting Robert Mallary, Master of Assemblage.

Working on Robert Mallary’s Corner Piece. (Photos by San Suzie and Box Gallery.)

Last December, the director of L.A.’s Box Gallery contacted me about the conservation of some 1950s and 60s pieces by Robert Mallary (1917-1997). The pieces consisted largely of old tuxedos dipped in resin and sculptures made of polyester, sand and dirt. For an Art Nurse like myself, nothing is more exciting than a chance to work on detritus-as-art, and these works — made by a pioneer in the field of assemblage and use of resin — would provide me with a rich opportunity to experiment with the conservation of new materials, not to mention chew over the limits between junk and art.

Crafted out of wood, dirt, sand, rusted steel, cardboard, tar paper and fabric that has been crushed, bent, twisted, and dipped in a resin of questionable formulation, these sculptures had once been seen in landmark avant-garde exhibitions such as MoMA’s Sixteen Americans (1959) and Art of Assemblage (1961). More recently, they had  languished in a near-junk heap in the building that had once served as Mallary’s studio in Conway, Massachusetts. They might have never been seen or heard from again if artist Paul McCarthy, long an admirer of Mallary’s work, hadn’t included some of them in the show Low Life, Slow Life at the San Francisco Wattis Institute in 2008.

“As soon as we saw this work we knew something bigger had to be done,” says Box Gallery director Mara McCarthy (who also happens to be Paul’s daughter). So the gallery’s team made three separate trips to Massachusetts and carefully sorted through the heaps in Mallary’s studio. After receiving the Art Nurse treatment, eighteen of these sculptures will go on exhibit this Saturday. Working on them wasn’t easy. Mallary’s pieces aren’t just fragile; they’re each made up of  what seems to be a million different materials – one corner might be all fabric and resin, another dirt and old newspaper. And because every material adheres differently and every adhesive used in conservation has the potential to stain the very thing you’re gluing, every single repair required a separate decision.  By the end of the week when the work was done (which incidentally was also the week that L.A. was pummeled by rain, which meant that everything took twice as long to dry) my brain felt as torqued as one of Mallary’s tuxedo pieces.

But it was clearly worth it.  In today’s art world, we’ve gotten so used to pieces made of weird materials that junk art seems as common as canvas painting.  But Mallary’s sculptures have a raw power that defies description.  This is shockingly good work – that has not been seen in nearly four decades. So if you’re going to be anywhere near L.A. over the next couple of months, get yourself over to The Box to see them. Mara McCarthy, in fact, believes that the proper resting place for these pieces would be a museum. After spending 60 hours staring and handling these works, I’d have to heartily agree.

A special thanks to the folks at the gallery for allowing us to document this process. See many more photos after the jump. Robert Mallary opens at the Box Gallery in Chinatown this Sat, Feb. 6 at 6pm and is on display until April 3, 2010.

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