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Mark Lewis, Conservator

Mark Lewis conservator at The Chrysler Museum

If Walter Chrysler Jr. was the parent of his collection, my host Mark Lewis, is certainly the one caring for his children! As the museum’s conservator for the last 14 years, it’s Mark’s roll to see that which Chrysler assembled, remains clean, intact and preserved. Remember, this museum and others like it, have thousands of objects to care for, so Mark has his hands full.

Walter Chrysler’s father once approached him while he was admiring the art on the walls of their home. “Son, they are yours to enjoy only for a brief period of time. ... Fundamentally they and all things like them must belong to everyone, and the best of them will become public property in museums throughout the country." (From the Chrysler Museum’s website)

It is always my hope with the creation of this magazine, to show that there are many forms of artistic endeavors and opportunities. Mark Lewis is a great example of the range in those endeavors. For without Mark and other conservators like him around the world, much of what you see in museums today would not have even remained in existence. Time takes its toll, even on cared for treasures such as these.

Behind the walls of a museum’s public area, there’s a world less polished, where corridors have a backstage feel. Here there are paintings and objects waiting for their turn to take the stage in performances of rotated exhibition. All the while, each item is cataloged and cared for. Some pieces will travel on exhibition elsewhere throughout the United States and the world. Mark himself in late September accompanied one of the museum’s Renoir paintings to the Musée du Luxembourg, in Paris. In turn, he is on the receiving end as I write this, of Thomas Cole’s “Voyage of Life” on loan from Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York.

While a museum’s curator essentially “takes care” in the overall management of the museum’s collection, the registrar is the caretaker who keeps track of every piece of it, its complete history and in turn, works with conservators like Mark Lewis, who is the hands on part of the team. Conservators not only repair damage, they are preventative specialists who keep damage from occurring by way of constant structural and chemical assessments. Conservators are not simply artists who know a little more than others about painting. They are graduates with degrees in conservation, with a deep knowledge of art history, chemistry and studio art. Mark makes the point that, “You really need to understand those three things to do this work.”

Conservation Lab view

Those three things couldn’t be more apparent as Mark leads me to his workspace, a large room that is part library, part laboratory and part studio. Mark’s lab, as he refers to it, is well equipped to cover a wide range of tasks. There’s a spray booth for safely applying varnishes, easels to handle any size painting, as well lab equipment for extensively testing as needed. Mark explains that conservators, as with in medicine, tend to be specialized and his specialty leans towards painting, where with others it may be sculpture, glass, photographs or paper, and so each conservator has their own discipline. Mark also has a solid background in wood working and furniture repair which allows him to also work a painting’s frame as well. But as a need arises for a different specialist, it is Mark who sees to the right specialist being contracted and oversees that treatment or repair.

Mark and I find ourselves very quickly coming to one of the deeper questions about conservation; Should something even be restored or not and if so, how much? These items are relics and a newness about them is not really the goal, but he explains this very question is part of “an ongoing dialog between conservators and curators.” Perhaps leaving damage on a 1000 year old sculpture is best...or not? It seems to be the one area open for interpretation in museums around the globe and so it makes sense that when they are making these decisions, they look at what is happening with all the pieces by that artist, not just at the one piece they have in their possession. It’s a fascinating topic and complex by it’s very nature, as there are both opinions and a historical responsibility in play here.

In my past, during the 1970’s and early 80’s, I maintained a collection of classic Ferrari Automobiles. Many of these cars raced, but others were among the best street examples found worldwide and at that time a good amount of them were original. Fast forward to today and many have been restored and some will note, possibly over restored, looking far more gem like then they originally did. But there’s a mechanical aspect to this too and what it takes to keep something running when old parts have failed. Mark makes a great example of this with historic airplanes being able to fly or not? But he makes an even better museum example with that of a rare musical instrument by saying, ”Is this more important as a unique artifact, with as much originality as possible and if it’s fragile and ready to fall apart [that’s okay], it’s original, we can learn from it, study it and know it hasn’t been monkeyed with, or, do we need to keep this instrument playable? Is that its purpose? Is the airplane’s purpose to fly, no matter what its historical significance is? How much do we need to compromise authenticity of original parts in making it safe to function?”

Of course artwork has a less complicated function, but this is the (why or why not) part of the equation in Mark’s roll as a conservator and why first, a conservator’s knowledge of art history is so important. Not just art history, but the individual history of each piece of art he and anyone else, touches. Now for the how part of what he does.

Chemistry is next. Mark explains that, “These objects are all made of things and what are the nature of those materials, the elements that go into making a painting?” As an artist myself, I think Mark’s job becomes vastly more interesting with that question. Artists create and where Mark may trade off some of his creativity in his roll as a conservator, but he makes it up for it in being a skilled detective. It’s his job to not only know where a painting or object has been throughout its life, but also exactly what it is made of. This instantly takes me back to the must see 1998 film, “The Red Violin”. Rent it and I think you’ll get a brilliant, theatrical and visual sense of what Mark does for a living.

Mark continues his explanation while pointing at a painting on his easel, “That particular painting is on a wooden panel. So, what holds wood together? What causes wood to fall wood panelapart? How is the wood prepared to be a painting support. [a support is the term for that which supports the paint, what it is painted on] How was the paint made? What are the binders. [binders create adhesion] Are they organic materials and if organic [made from plants] how do we clean it? How the pH affects the wood? How will it affect the pigments [color], the binders, how will it affect the coatings [varnishes]? So chemistry ends up being a big part of understanding how you preserve something, even if you don’t touch it.” [and] “What amount of light is appropriate, what temperature and humidity will affect its long term preservation.”

While certainly a part of a conservator’s detective work is knowing what materials were available to an artist at that time in history, the instruments of modern science are also at their fingertips. Mark points out, “What are the analytical tools that help you discern between lead white, titanium white, zinc white, chalk white?” Science helps them determine this.

I asked Mark from a conservator’s standpoint, if there was a point in art’s history where a significant change of some kind occurred? He quickly offered a good example of the Mid 19th century, for two very specific reasons. First, the American portrait painter John G. Rand, a Charleston native while living in London in 1841, thought of putting paint in a collapsible tin tube. This invention preserved paint in a way that never before allowed artists to go outside and paint from nature, which as Mark explains, was a really hard thing to do before this time. This is basically the birth of painting en plein air! [in open air - or outside] But more importantly, I have read that Renoir said, “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Paint tubesPissarro and no impressionism.” Now those are some pretty important words.

As well, before this time artists were limited to a dozen or so colors. So second, with the tube came a increase in the chemistry of color making, the dyes and pigments, many which were synthetic, but turned out to be very favorable for this use. This Mark says, “... had a gigantic impact on the range of colors artist’s had to choose from.” Mixing paint also took up a big part of an artist’s time, often requiring assistants and so there was now also more time to paint. Well, thank you very much Mr. Rand!

The time saving part of this also opens up a discussion about about how painting itself and the creation of painting has changed. We think of painting today as being a rather solitary vocation. An artist and their materials alone at work, but Mark points out that it wasn’t historically that way. Painting required a team to be, as he puts it, commercially successful. “So you would have assistants that you would train to paint and your apprentices would study with you and the first thing they learned was how to clean up the studio, help you with whatever and then how to grind paint by hand, pigment, oil, grind, grind,” says Mark who then further explains - unlike today, “And then you would have multiple people working on a single work of art.” The artist would be the art director, having several working on the painting, including himself and then as Mark puts it, “Sign his name on the bottom - or not.” Then when it was time, an apprentice would apply to the guild to become a master himself. In these modern times, I think of the world of blowing or making glass as a good comparison to those days of old. Glass still takes a team of apprentices working with a master and vice versa.

The greatest point in this knowledge though, is what a conservator like Mark might see or discover when working with a piece of art and how we might think of many of those old masters, which by description in this context, is really foremost - a person qualified to teach an apprentice. It seems in the case of a conservator’s exploration, there can be much hidden behind that master’s signature. I’m told that many of these apprentices were tasked with making copies of a work as part of an artist’s commissioning process and in some cases today, it is only those examples which still exist. Mark tells me, “There are 17 or 18 known Penitent Magdalene, by Titian painted late in his career and they are all a little bit different, but they were all from the same design or drawing.” Further he says, “But he probably turned some over to his assistants, or did a little or a lot himself or did it all himself or [laughingly] after he was dead the cartoon [cartoons were originally preparatory drawings] was still around and they [the assistants] said, we have a hit here and were still taking orders!”

In the swirling questions of who actually worked on many of these masterpieces, Mark sights da Vinci as an exception, because he left his finger prints all over his work, in the glazes and such. “He used his fingers more than he probably used a brush.” Mark explains that this has only been discerned through modern digital photography, 300 mega pixel cameras which can scan a painting and through this they’ve been able to learn important things like the Mona Lisa actually having eye brows! But with information such as this and cross referencing, historians and conservators are able to gather facts which allow them to compare other works of art in question, to an artist’s known body of work.

Other tools of his trade see more than skin deep! Radiography uses X-rays to view below the surface, through the painting and its support. Using different light or energy and wave xraylengths, these tools are sophisticated enough to see under the paint, the grounds used and sketches an artist used, as well as restoration that may have occurred throughout its history. I asked Mark about that and he tells me restoration has been going on for many years and so knowing what you are actually working on before you touch it, is imperative. So, where even the best digital photography allows them to see deep into the cover of a book, so to speak, radiography allows them to read the book within. It doesn’t stop there, they also use microscopic cross sectioning of tiny chips of paint and other techniques of their trade, many which have been adapted to their use from other industries.

In my conversation with Mark, one thing he mentioned which made perfect sense, but wasn’t something I had given much thought to, is that the life of paint is one thing, but canvas life is another. While many paintings were painted on wood, which has its own unique characteristic issues, canvas is cellulose [cotton or linen] cloth and by its nature, has a life span of he says, about 100 years. As he puts it, “So it doesn’t matter if there’s a great painting on it, it starts falling apart.” “So, what people have done for about 400 years now is glue a new piece of fabric on the back, called the lining and now the strength is in that new piece of fabric. The good news is, that this artwork we enjoy would not be around if this wasn’t done. The unfortunate news is the ways in which they did this years ago required ironing and so many of these paintings don’t looks as they did when first painted centuries ago because they’ve flattened the brush strokes right out of them.

The third and final part of what a conservator needs to know, along with art history and chemistry, is studio art or the knowledge of how artists go about making the things they make. This is the part where Mark will say that theory is great, but you need go out in the field and learn from the individual artwork itself and each work is unique. He says, “The experiences, the technology, the theory, all come to play in understanding, but it’s sort of a mystery and a riddle, that each artwork holds and you have to sort that out and figure out what can you do, what can you not do, what you should do, what you should not do and that’s where the history, the chemistry, your understanding of how art is made, the studio art, all come to into play in with those decisions.”

Picasso.paintingPicasso painting owned by the museum and referenced below

One of those major decisions can be as seemingly simple as what paint to use for a repair It’s so easy to think, use oil on an oil painting. Ah, not so fast. The Chrysler Museum owns an interesting Picasso painting which was painted in the 1920’s for a Mardi Gras ball in Paris. As Mark tells it, “It was just sort of painted as a theater curtain. It was a backdrop for a really wealthy friend for this theater production they were putting on.” At about 12 X 8 feet, afterwards is was just stored away and not given much thought. Twenty years goes by and Picasso’s popularity had grown, so they decide they should restore it and sell it. As Picasso had never signed it, they wanted him to do this as well. It was sent to his studio and other things were done to it during that time and then eventually it makes its way to America, Chrysler purchased it and other touch ups were done along the way and all of these things done over time, age differently.

Mark uses this Picasso example to note that using oil to repair or restore a damaged work of art originally painted in oil, can have its drawbacks. First, it’s not reversible without damaging the original work itself. Even though one may think that oil is totally polymerized, the interaction between the two, [the new and old paint] any solvents you use to remove that repair later in time, open the risk of harming the original artist work. As he puts it, “You are painting yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of because you can’t undo what you’ve done if you make a mistake. Second, getting back to these things aging differently, the new paint will now have to also go through its own changes over time that the original paint already has experienced and therefore you can have things that no longer match and now you can’t do anything about it.

So, what’s a conservator to do? Well for one, both Mark and Ellen point to the use of Gamblin Conservation Colors and an example being aldehyde resins. Not only are these paints Gamblin paint palletlightfast, meaning that they will age well. They are also reversible, which means if they ever don’t match they can be removed and it can be done without harming the original paint itself. They actually have many systems to choose from and so you can see how chemistry is an on going and essential part of the field of conservation

As mentioned when talking about renovation of the Chrysler Museum building itself, Mark makes it a point to note, “One of the most important parts of preservation is creating a stable environment, protecting it [the art] from light, from heat, fluctuations in humidity, from bugs, from water, from fire, I mean there are really things that speed up the breakdown of these natural materials.” Much thought and certainly funding went into the state of the art HVAC system for this building and details on temperature, humidity and other important information is at the fingertips of Mark and others who monitor these rooms full of art and the information is recorded as well.

While in Mark’s lab it was impossible to miss “Spring Morning” by Charles W. Hawthorne (Jan. 1872 - Nov. 1930), which also has been known as “Summer Millinery” from the book titled - “Hawthorne Retrospective”. Hawthorne was an American portrait painter who founded the Cape Cod School of Art and this particular painting I felt offered refreshing uses of color to aid both its composition and narrative. As paintings rotate, some going to other exhibits, it is Alex Mann, the museum’s curator of American Art, that would make sure that other paintings like this have their turn to be seen by you.

Ellen Mark
“Spring Morning” by Charles W. Hawthorne (Jan. 1872 - Nov. 1930)

So, it’s going out on view, but before it does, Mark’s eyes will see it first. He notes in their documentation, “much like a medical file”, that the varnish hadn’t been touched in over 20 years. They also used ultra violet light (black light) to photograph it and he shares a photos showing dark areas of decades past restoration. Mark points out that in the window, the brown patch is actually the wood Hawthorne painted on showing through. In this case, it is a plywood and its grain can be seen in the surface of the painting, which I thought in its own way, added to the character of the piece. Mark says, “He [Hawthorne] used the color of wood as a tone in the composition, maybe to compliment her skin tone”. In any event, this is a piece that has experienced restoration over the years and Mark, with Ellen, will make sure it is fine before going on exhibit.

During my visit, much was talked about and seen. Being a conservator is a fascinating vocation, one which artists who might also enjoy chemistry, should look more closely into. It also seems very gratifying and there’s an intimacy with working so closely with very special art. Many of us, especially artists, view these works of art only at arms length and extract feeling and technique from there. The conservator, dare I say, holds them close. It is one thing to see the work of a master in its frame on the wall of a museum. It is certainly another to see a frameless master’s work on an easel in front of you, just as the artist once did. To not only experience its allure, but its scale and minute detail. Then, just imagine your place in history as you keep it in good repair.

I can’t thank Mark Lewis and the Chrysler Museum of Art enough, for their hospitality and allowing me to bring you this story.  See our related stories about The Chrysler Museum and the Chrysler Glass Studio.

Ellen Nigro - National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellow in Conservation. Chrysler Museum of Art started an intern program which takes students who are finishing or about to enter graduate school, and they spend time there learning more about conservation.

Ellen has an under graduate degree from the University of Delaware, which is one of the few under graduate degree programs in conservation in the country. This means Ellen got the background needed in art history, chemistry and studio art, so she has all the prerequisites, plus the 500 hours of hands on experience you need to even qualify to apply to graduate school, of which Mark tells me there are only three in the country - NYU, University of Delaware and Buffalo. These are the three schools which he points out, if you want to study the types of things museums collect.

Mark’s path to being a conservator was just as extensive with schooling and internships, although his included other life experiences along the way, such as working with antiques, before his final decision to become a conservator.