Art arrives at Richmond Conservation Studio in tragic condition. Paintings show up flaked and sagging in their stretcher bars, weary from fires, floods, or simple neglect. The rigors of time take a toll on oil, wood, canvas and glue, leaving canvases ripped and pigments faded. At the outset, some withering works of art can seem beyond repair.
Or so you may think. Recovering objects from the brink of destruction is the sort of challenge that art history senior Merin Duke wants to confront every day. Duke spent her fall 2017 semester at Richmond Conservation Studio bringing art back to life under the tutelage of lead conservator Lorraine Brevig (MFA ’85), assistant conservator and manager Beth Fulton, and technician Hazel Buys.
“I can’t express how much I learned in such a short time,” she says. “I worked at the studio nine to ten hours each week, and during a semester, I either assisted with or observed almost all of the treatments that the studio performs on pieces on a regular basis.”
Those treatments can be part of a long, careful process that demands delicate chemistry and herculean patience. After a painting is diagnosed and tested, a variety of photographs are taken in UV, infrared, raking and natural light that can reveal the extent of the damage. Conservators may further prepare by removing a painting from its stretcher bars, vacuuming away dirt and flattening it with a tacking iron and blotting paper.
The needs of individual paintings can vary at that point. Rips and tears must be mended, and weakened canvases need structural reinforcement. Those canvases are affixed with wax to a new lining, typically made of fiberglass fabric on stretcher bars, and pressure-sealed on a hot table: a large aluminum surface with heat lamps underneath. Once cool, the painting can be returned to its original stretcher bars. Only then are the front-facing damages repaired with new paint.
It’s a lot of responsibility for an intern to take on. But throughout her educational career, Duke has proved her mettle. She’s received a renewable scholarship from VCUarts towards her general education, studied abroad in Madrid, and interned at the Maggie Walker Historical Site, where she helped maintain the museum’s inventory and even translated a new 20-minute informational video into Spanish.
She earned the opportunity to intern at Richmond Conservation Studio by expressing her love of art conservation to art history professor Robert Hobbs (retired in 2017), who immediately encouraged her to call up the studio.
Now, she plans to head back to Madrid in June to take a four-part entrance exam for the Escuela Superior de Conservación y Restauración de Bienes Culturales (The Superior School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property).
“I’ve always enjoyed making art,” says Duke. “Throughout school, I’ve learned more about art conservation and see it now as a meeting of the hands-on approach of fine arts and the research and knowledge-based art history that I love.”