Section: Arts

The invisible and necessary career of a paper conservator

The invisible and necessary career of a paper conservator

They solve problems that no one else can. They work in the shadows where most will never see them. If they did the job right, no one will ever know that they were there.

They are arts conservators.

When Jamye Jamison, a paper conservator for Cleveland’s Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA), began her career talk this Tuesday in the Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater, she joked that her job can be thankless.

“The most common response I get to my job is, ‘Oh, so you save trees?’” Jamison said. “Conservation is — and it should be — an invisible profession.”

The job of an arts conservator can seem relatively simple on the surface level: If a piece of art is worn through time or destroyed in some way, an arts conservator restores it to its original glory through a careful, often years-long, process.

But conservation is far more complicated than it seems, Jamison explained. In order to become an arts conservator, one must have a firm background in studio art, art history and organic and inorganic chemistry.

Arts conservators mend together damaged art pieces and restore the original color of faded paintings, all without damaging the integrity of the artist’s vision. Whether they are working with private collectors, museums or the artists themselves, arts conservators must be able to find a balance between restoration and original vision.

“We really focus on what is best for the object as well as what its life will be after,” Jamison said. “So the experience is the same as before.”

During her talk, Jamison led the audience through a PowerPoint presentation that displayed three different projects she recently completed, exhibiting the incredible tediousness her profession requires.

One artist had sent Jamison a mountain landscape created by stacking multiple sheets of thin paper over each other. Time had worn out the papers, and the heavier sheets werr weighing the image down. Jamison repaired the tears and stuck the pages back together using dry glue and extremely thin paper that was nearly invisible to the naked eye.

In addition to her talk in the gallery, Jamison also spoke to classes in the art history and studio art departments. Jill Greenwood, visiting assistant professor of art history, initially contacted Jamison six weeks ago in hopes that she would be able to speak to her print history class about how prints from hundreds of years ago can still be displayed today.

“I’m always a huge fan of using experts in the field to talk to students, primarily just to give students exposure to the different professions that are available to them,” Greenwood said. “I think paper conservation, or art conservations in general, is a really interesting field, and it taps into three strengths here at Kenyon which are art history, studio art and the sciences.”

Both Jamison and Greenwood hoped this talk inspired Kenyon students to look into the field of art conservation. “When you’ve brought a piece back to life,” Jamison said, “it feels really rewarding.”

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