An interview with

Tessa Thomas

Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Conservation

How did you get interested in art conservation? I can’t imagine there’s a lot of old art laying around for beginners to practice on?

I visited the Archives of Ontario, which is at York University now, they have a preservation and special collections unit there.  I was a preteen, or early teenager, and I thought it looked really cool.  That would have been my first exposure to conservation and preservation.

Once you were introduced to it at the archives how did you begin to pursue it as a hobby or a career?

I spoke to some of the conservators who worked there and asked them the same question.  There are a few options in terms of programs, the Queen’s University Art Conservation program and there’s also a program at Sir Sandford Fleming.  I went down to the United States to do my undergraduate in art history and in my second year I thought I’d like to pursue conservation so I picked up chemistry as a minor and that background and education helped for getting into the Queen’s graduate program.

Conservation requires a mix of art history and science and I imagine some sort of artistic ability? What do you think is the ideal combination of skills required to be a conservator?

It’s definitely a blend.  There are a lot of conservators with a background in Fine Arts, which is really important as well. Being able to understand materials and techniques is really the foundation of conservation, it’s an understanding of the work itself before you can do anything to it.  It’s a blend of a lot of different skillsets and I can’t really say that one is more important than another.  It’s more so the combination of all of them.

What sciences are required?

It’s primarily chemistry.  It’s because of the nature of so many different types of materials being used and how they interact.  In treatment we use solvents and specific chemicals so knowing exactly what is happening and having that foundation in reactions is very important.

What’s the Queen’s program like?

The Queen’s program is great, it’s the only graduate level program in Canada, there are only a few in North America.  It’s a two-year program, it’s pretty intense, it’s a steep learning curve because going in you probably have some experience but really you dive right in and learn a lot.  The good thing about conservation is that you’re always learning but the Queen’s program is the foundation for everything you do.  Most conservators have gone through it, especially in this area of Canada.

So would that program be moving from more of a theoretical undergraduate knowledge of conservation to more of a hands-on approach?

The program is setup so that you specialize in either paper, paintings, artifacts, or conservation science.  You have lectures but everyday you’re also working on something in the studio, so it’s very hands-on, which is great.

So when do you actually get to start working on pieces?

You sort of start small.  I had done a summer experience placement at the Archives of Ontario while I was in university. I did  rehousing and other things that were related to conservation but weren’t always treatment.  We did a lot of preservation and preventative conservation.  It was more sustained in that way, which is really great because you get exposed to the ins and outs and daily activities of the lab, and progressively, you get more involved in treatments.  The first major treatments I did were at Queen’s.

Why did you choose paper?

I was drawn to paper because of the variety of materials and techniques involved, there’s just so many, I thought that the ability to work in galleries and museums but also libraries and archives would be really interesting.  I love prints and drawings and seeing artists’ processes, a lot of paper works and sketches can be the pre-work. . . or the finished, so there’s quite a lot of variety.

Tessa Thomas with Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen's Le Locataire, 1913

Can you walk us through your process? Say you get a new piece, where do you start? What steps do you take?

The first step is always examination, just looking to see how much we can see about the object.  We’ll look at it in different lighting situations, regular light, transmitted light, under UV, radiography is an option, infrared, as many non-invasive ways of determining everything you can and finding out everything you can about the object.  Once you know all of those things if there are any issues you can start to piece together what is causing certain things.

What are you looking for? What would stand out?

For paperworks if there’s a lot of discolouration or if the paper has become very brittle it might speak to the type of environment it’s been in. You have to ask has it been in an acidic environment or exposed to a lot of light? Are there tears? How is the media, is the media stable?  Everything we do is kind of looking at the stability and everything we do ethically has to be reversible or as close to reversible as possible.  We always try to work towards meeting those standards and wouldn’t do anything unnecessary.  If the object itself is already stable but it might have something minor you’d have to really consider if you’d be putting the object at risk to fix something that might not be a major issue.  There’s a lot of weighing and a lot of interdisciplinary work and discussing things with different conservators because of course now with contemporary art and older works you have a combination of materials and techniques.

What are the ethical guidelines a conservator works within?

The foundations of it are pretty well rooted, there is a written Code of Ethics that we follow as part of the profession.  We try and do things that are not invasive.  Stability is the key, you don’t want things to be unsupported or unstable.  It’s really just for the longevity of each piece that we intervene.  If the piece is going to be fine without intervention then there might not be a need.  It could be something small or something as simple as just rehousing it. For example if it’s coming from a donor and it’s been in a situation or a frame or a box where it’s been acidic or it was too tight then the conservation treatment would be more preventative, taking the piece out of that environment or condition and putting it in a place where it’s nice and happy.

Reversibility is very important, the materials and techniques that we use are intended to be reversible to a certain extent.  That way you know where things have been worked on and where they haven’t, whereas if you use things that are too similar to the original material in the future it could be very difficult for someone to discern what is the artists hand and what is the conservators.  Restoration is a bit different; it’s restoring something to what it was originally whereas conservation is more about stabilization and preventative efforts.  There are situations where you might do infills on a painting but you would never, based on the principles, want those things to disappear into the work, whereas with restoration it might.

Is this piece in good condition (Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s Le Locataire, 1913)

This one is stable.

I was going to say it looks really good.

It’s been mounted to a heavy canvas support.  It has been worked on before.  It’s quite large but it’s definitely in good condition for its size and age, it’s over a hundred years old. This one (points to another one) you can see where it’s been folded. You come across so many different things (laughs) and that’s part of the detective work, where has this been?  What is it made out of? Is it what it’s made out of that’s causing something or is it how it’s been taken care of?  There’s a lot of questions and those initial steps are trying to answer as many questions as you can before you go into any kind of treatment.

You did an internship at the Royal Ontario Museum, how did that help you improve your skills and knowledge and how has it helped you in your career?

I would 100% recommend internships.  For the Queen’s program you have to do two internships, you do them during the summers.  The first one I did at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, which was great, and the second one was at The ROM.  What internships provide is that real day-to-day experience of how studios operate.  In the classroom setting the pace is different so you get to see what it’s like to have to work on things for an exhibition or for loans or incoming donations and what each one of those things entails.  You get to see all the different hats that are worn by a conservator.

What were some of your first jobs after you graduated?

I worked here in Toronto for a private conservator for about seven months. Then took a contract at the National Archives in the UK for a year, which was great because I’d never been to London.  If you want to talk about a place with a ton of cultural heritage institutions there’s one on every street. Then I started this fellowship at the AGO in October.

You’ve worked and studied in Canada, The United States, Australia, and England, is this amount of travel typical for a conservator?

Definitely, the great thing about conservation, and one of the reasons I got into the field as well, is the ability to travel, to see other collections and to possibly work on other collections.  Every major institution is likely to have a conservation or preservation unit or department.  The exposure to all sorts of materials and art works and collections is quite incredible.  There’s so much that you end up finding your interests and following that path.  I haven’t even mentioned books and photographs but those are both considered paper based and are very specialized areas, we have a photographs conservator here at the AGO, but with that foundation you could essentially work on various collections around the world.

What are you currently working on at the AGO?

The fellowship is centered around a donation that came in two parts in 2010 and 2012.  The Scott/Muller  collection and consists of art works, primarily posters, prints and drawings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Simon Théophile Steinlen, as well as other artists in their circle during Belle Époque over a ten year period between 1890-1900.  There are very recognizable posters from that era the iconic Chat Noir, and Moulin Rouge.  There are quite a few posters, some are quite large and some are smaller and more standard size for the time.  They are all in varying conditions.  Some have been lined and that’s the foundation of my research for the work that I’m doing on the history of poster linings as they relate to these posters.  There’s also really neat works in the collection, there’s charcoal drawings, there’s other small prints like invitations and menus that they did as artists at that time but weren’t necessarily what they’re recognized for today.  We’re working on treatment.  Everything started with an initial condition survey for the 80+ works and from that we’ll look at treatment priorities and what can be done.

Art Gallery of Ontario interior.

What exactly is lining?

The backing.  This has been lined, there is a linen backing on there.  They’ve been fully stuck down and adhered.  There’s a variety, this one is much more recently done and it has that paper barrier and then the canvas behind it.  I believe there are one or two that we have the original linings for.  A lot of them were lined at the time and that’s why it’s kind of interesting because they were lined then and we can see  what’s happened and it’s quite neat to put all the linings together and see all the different types of linings that have happened in just over a hundred years.  That’s the research portion of my fellowship.

How did you get your fellowship?

The fellowship is through the Samuel H. Kress foundation, which is based out of the United States.  The AGO applied for the fellowship based on the project and once the fellowship was granted the job was posted for people to apply and I was fortunate enough to be selected.  We keep them up to date with what is going on with the project and at the end I’ll write a research paper and hopefully present it at one of the conferences.  Fellowships in conservation in general, this is not exclusive to the Kress Foundation, can be quite specific or quite broad but it’s just an opportunity for someone to be immersed in the day to day activities of the conservation studio.  It’s a really great opportunity.  I’m from the Toronto area so it’s nice to be at home.  I came to the AGO as a kid, and even when I was working at the ROM, if you’re from Toronto you go there so often in elementary school then all of a sudden I get to work here, it’s really great.

Now that you’re out of school how do you keep up on all the new discoveries or technological advances? I imagine you have to be constantly learning new things.

The great thing about conservation is that it’s a small field so there are annual conferences, there are publications, there’s a few journals, so a lot gets published.  Really reading, speaking to other colleagues, and attending conferences are the main ways to keep up with what’s happening.  Things change over time, the materials that were used early on in the early years of conservation aren’t necessarily the same ones that are used now because they’ve been tested more thoroughly or over time you see that they maybe aren’t the best and new things develop.  You definitely have to stay on top of literature and research and converse with other colleagues in other institutions and in other parts of the world to ask what have you seen? Have you seen this before? What might you use?

 After my research is done here I’ll write a paper and hope to publish it and put it out there so I can share with the community what I’ve learned.  Conservation science is a specialty in its own right so you get a lot of scientific papers about different techniques.  What’s being used to analyze different things.  Different types of photography.  The gamut is huge.

This might seem like a weird question to ask at this point but when you’re looking at paper do you always know how the paper was originally made before the drawings or paintings were put onto it?  Do you kind of have to know how the whole history and process of how paper is made?

That’s one of the foundations.  With paper it’s interesting because we deal twofold with the paper itself and then the media that’s on top.  Knowing the manufacturing technology of the paper sheet is critical especially going forward with any treatments to know if it is wood fiber or cotton? Is it acidic or stable? How old is it? There are things you look for to recognize age and manufacturer.

So you kind of have to have that base knowledge of paper manufacturing techniques based on place and time?

You got it.  The history of technology and paper making is one of the first classes you have to take.  It’s important to know the timeline of when things were developed because then that helps you place them.  It also helps if something is listed with a certain date then you can ask, well was that developed then?  It’s like a mental check, yah that existed so maybe that date is accurate.

What was the most puzzling or weirdest thing that has come across your desk?

You just never know what you’ll see.  I’ll say one of the most interesting objects that I saw was when I was at the ROM there were these painted photographs from India.  They were photographs from early to mid 20th century.  What I guess was the trend at the time, the images were black and white but they went in with oil colours, every detail was fully painted, it had its own conservation issues but it was really neat.  To be completely honest, the thing about it is that everything is unique and that’s what makes the job so interesting.  You never know what you’re going to see. Even what you’re going to see under the microscope, you could be looking at something for a week and then all of a sudden you see it differently.  There have been a lot that I have come across and thought “oh, I’ve never seen that before”.  I think tomorrow I could say the same thing.

Do you have any final advice for people looking to get into conservation?

I would say definitely internships and exposure to how labs go about their day-to-day. If you can get any kind of hands on experience that will really serve you well in the future.  Talking to other conservators is also really great, I always say you’d be hard pressed to find two conservators that got into conservation following the same path.  It’s very typical at Queens for people to be attending and it’s not their first degree or even their second, it could be that they transitioned into it from a different field, there’s so many ways to go about it.  Having those foundations in either fine arts or art history or any art related field.  The science is also important even though some people aren’t fans of the sciences they’re really important in conservation so you’ve got to keep up with that.

Art Gallery of Ontario

This fellowship has been supported by a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation.

Date: May 9, 2014 • Category:
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  • Terry Quinlan

    What a fantastic initiative, on the part of the AGO, to profile an emerging conservator. Well done!

    A couple of notes, Queen’s University is the only graduate level program offered in “Art” Conservation. A number of post grad programs that focus on the conservation of other material culture certainly do exist. Of course, Ryerson’s Master of Arts in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management and the very well established Carleton University Heritage Conservation Program that offers graduate and PhD level certification focused on interdisciplinary approaches to conservation theory and practice of built heritage. conservation/

    Certainly other training opportunities exist within the domain of object and art conservation in Canada at an undergraduate level. The Applied Museum Studies program at Algonquin College, has been training conservation technicians for over 40 years, in fact it remains the oldest such program in Canada

    Of course one should give consideration to the terms conservator, conservation technician and collections care specialist when discussing the field of material culture conservation and the options for realistic, gainful employment. Few cultural institutions possess a fully equipped conservation lab necessary to execute invasive conservation treatment. As a result, the majority of conservation work is being executed by those within the technician and specialist domain. This requires considerable practical experience in the areas of remedial care and preventive practices. This type of work does not require a graduate level degree.

    Again, great initiative that provides some insights into the field of art conservation treatment opportunities and post-secondary training that speaks specifically to this venture. Well done!!

    • truetometoo

      Thanks for suggesting those great alternative programs. You brought up some great points about technician and specialist positions. I’ll keep those roles in mind for potential future interviews. I appreciate the feedback. Thanks for reading.

      • Terry Quinlan

        Thank you for the response truetometoo, My post, was intended to engage the emerging “conservators” demographic in a discourse centered on the advantages of their particular post secondary training and the challenges they may have encountered breaching the gap between training and gainful employment. Sincerely, a great post. Tessa and the AGO’s willingness to spread the word about conservation training and the significant role formal education plays in the process is very much appreciated. KUDOS!