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Bringing Treasures Back to Life – inside a conservator’s workshop

By Katie Wilde

One day the phone rang in our office. On the other end was a lady with a problem: her treasured teapot had a nasty chip, and she hoped to find a ceramics expert to repair it. She had asked around town and been referred to us, and while we don’t have a teapot-repair department, we were equally interested to know where she could find help to restore a treasured object.

That’s how I met Lloy Osburn. Lloy is a local conservator who specializes in paper and textiles, but through her network of colleagues, the teapot was repaired. I was still curious to know more about art conservation, from someone in our own neighbourhood. I visited her studio, in a heritage building on Woolwich (not far from the Wooly pub) to get a look behind the scenes.

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KW: How does one become a conservator?

LO: I began my career working as a laboratory technician in the Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. But since childhood, I had been an avid antique collector and a self-taught artist. In 1986, I heard an interview with the conservator at the Seagram Museum. This led to a new career and pursuit of a lifelong love. It was like a light coming on! Conservation is a compilation of art, antiques and lab work. So, at 38 I went back to school. My classmates were half my age!

In Canada there are just two places to study this kind of work: Queens and Sir Sanford Fleming. The latter is where I spent two years studying art preservation. The Art Conservation course includes study of the causes of material deterioration and techniques used for their restoration. This was followed by a year of specialization (paper restoration) and three internships: at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, and the Canadian Conservation Institute.

I took on a summer job in my second year up in Whitehorse, Yukon. Within a week, I’d met the man that would be my husband! That summer romance led to a fifteen-year position as Paper Conservator at the newly-constructed Yukon Archives in Whitehorse, along with contracts at the local museums, archives, galleries and heritage institutions.

KW: Now you’re in Guelph, with your own business. Who comes knocking at your door, and what do they need help with?

LO: Yes, I moved back to my hometown of Guelph in 2007 and opened Artful Restorations. Who are my clients? Antique dealers and insurance, fire and flood damage companies who subcontract out the art restoration to me. Sometimes, a family member will come to save a work with sentimental value. I remember one woman who was recently widowed and lost a son in a car crash. She had been given a painting by her daughter, but the painting fell off the wall and was damaged. Many joyful tears were shed when I was finished with the repairs!

KW: What are your favourite things to work on?

LO: One project that stands out would be the 25-foot-high mural hidden behind a wall in Council Chambers at the City of Guelph, uncovered during renovations. I recall it was an architectural scene with columns, sky in the distance, no signature, and that it was done before that building became City Hall. They had a photographer come in to document it, and me to examine and document the colour pigments. It got covered up again by a new wall.

KW: Would you give me a tour of your tools and projects?

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(Left) Reemay, or pellon (known by sewers as interfacing), is a delicate but strong material that can support paper while it soaks during aqueous treatments (baths). It allows the paper to be gently lifted and handled without damage.

(Middle) Microspatula for sculpting and holding precisely, lifting edges of paper.

(Right)I wasn’t surprised to see a laptop in the space, but I didn’t expect it to be included on the tour-of-tools. As research is such a critical component of Lloy’s work, a computer has a top spot on the essential tools list.

 

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In the far corner, a French military uniform, late 18th century. The garment is dirty, sunfaded, and water damaged.

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 A large magnifying glass (no surprise), lead weights, soft brushes and several works in progress.

 

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Mould can be a big health and safety issue. This vacuum system, with exterior ventilation and a clear hood allows Lloy to work up close while preventing dangerous spores from leaping from artwork to her lungs.

 

KW: What myths about protecting and restoring art can you debunk?

1) I can store art in my basement or attic.  

Basements are damp and mould loves damp, warm conditions. IT IS A HEALTH HAZARD TO HUMANS! Mould grows like a tree: it has roots, branches and “bloom”. A conservator can remove the bloom and branches, but the roots remain and if the mouldy piece is ever exposed to elevated moisture and temperature again, the mould will reoccur.

Attics are dry and hot. This environment can make artwork brittle and fragile, like dry skin.

2) If I put it away, it’s probably safe.

Tears often occur from poor handling, folding, and rolling. Also, artwork can be affected if placed against seemingly innocuous materials like other materials that aren’t acid-free. Over time all these factors add up. Two simple ways to prevent damage is to a) restrict handling and b) place the works in suitable housing: acid free folders and boxes. These can be purchased through a conservator.


3) My damaged artwork is ruined forever. 

The number one misconception is that conservation is impossible. People don’t know what conservators do and that many damaged artifacts can be brought back. Conservators work on most items/materials you’d find in a museum: wood, leather, metal, pottery, textiles, sculptures, and photographs. There are also conservators who specialize (paintings, books, etc.).

Items to be restored have value, whether historic, monetary or sentimental. Those from museums or archives have historic value, family pieces have tremendous sentimental value, and those owned by antique dealers or collectors have monetary value. Many of the items I restore are one-of-a-kind.

4) It’s too costly to have something restored!

An average job is 3-5 hours and conservators charge approximately $100 per hour. Also, verbal estimates are free if carried out in the studio.

 

5) Sunlight doesn’t harm works of art.

Incorrect! Exposure to sunlight or interior lights can fade artwork. Long exposure or exposure to intense light quickly affect pigments.

 

In short, house your artwork out of direct sunlight, in acid free materials, in a room that provides reasonable cleanliness, temperature and humidity. Store items on a shelf rather than on the floor as water damage can occur from basement flooding, overhead pipes, rain/roof leaks, etc. And it something does go wrong, or you want help storing your treasures safely, contact a conservator!

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