Art’s Hopeful Sickroom

Friday evening I was invited to aperitivo, like after-work drinks for Italians, at the studio of someone I know through my friend Giulia and also from Facebook. I wasn’t quite sure what this was all about, exactly: what kind of studio was it? Who would be there? What sort of a snack situation were we looking at, here?

There was wine and cheese and crackers and various smoked Italian pork products (it would seem my latent vegetarianism goes right out the window when confronted with salami) as well as various lovely people, but hey, you know what kind of studio it was? It was a conservation and restoration studio, where people send in their old and broken and sick and tired art, and the people at the studio make it gorgeous and glorious again. I have never seen anything like it…I’ve never even thought about anything like it. I wish I’d taken pictures, I wish I’d thought to take my camera out—one of the conservators walked me all around the studio and told me what they were doing for each piece: analyzing the pigment there so they could retouch it, restretching the canvas here, cleaning off layers of black paint or killing fungus or applying new gold leaf or any number of things. Their instrument trays looked like surgeons’, all scalpels and cotton pads and scrapers and paddles and brushes.

Carolina, of course, had many fantastic stories to tell, and the other people who work there said things like “Well when I was studying furniture in Italy,” or “Oh, well, I did my thesis on Eastern European icons, you see, so this all feels very natural to me.” What I liked best was hearing the details of the work they do: what kind of putty you use to fill holes left by wood-eating insects on a carving, how to peel off the protective paper from an antique Venetian cabinet, how to clean a generation’s worth of cooking grease off a priceless painting that’s been hanging in the kitchen. Another one of the conservators told me about preventative conservation: when you work with a collector or museum or whatever to make sure that art will last a long time in a specific environment: lighting, temperature, humidity, and so forth. I could have listened to this sort of thing all day and never wanted to leave.

I was saying how jealous I was of the gift of…I don’t know how to call it, exactly. You know how some people have their brains in their hands? Like they can fix anything, put anything together or take anything apart? And some people have their brains in their eyes: they can see that if you recover that couch with this fabric and repaint the wall to a darker colour then this room will be so much better. They wear clothing combinations that on anyone else would look crazy but make perfect sense on them, they are always doodling little things everywhere they go, they take photographs that make you gasp and scream and beg for mercy—they just see the world through the lens of art, maybe, and everything they touch and everywhere they go, is art, in them and around them. It’s amazing, and of the many talents I wish devoutly I possessed, that is very much at the top of the list.

Anyway, I was saying something about that to the preservative conservator, and saying something else about how I didn’t know how people ever got into that kind of work (do you have to go to university? What do you major in?) and she said that yes, it’s very important to have the eye, and it’s important to have the talent and the skills, and the plain old practice, but you know the thing that’s hardest to get, the thing that keeps people out of the profession? ALL THE MATH AND PHYSICS AND CHEMISTRY. I was boggled by that, because of course I had built a full-fledged fantasy life of the art conservator after being in that studio for barely enough time to snarf down a couple or three handsful of little yummy salami chips: opera playing in the background as you swanned into work with your hair blowing loose around your angular yet sensitive face, your eyes intent on the treasures beneath your skilled hands, the fabulous long lunches with grateful gallery directors. I had not had any idea that there would be math involved, but of course there’s math, a lot of it: there’s analysis and experiment and calculations to be made, all the time, to sort out how best to save the poor sick art, bandage it up and feed it well and sort it all out.

I didn’t really think too much, though, about the math (pigment analysis! UV radiation!), or even really about the romance of being an artist in this way. What I thought about most was doing work with my hands, with my eyes, with my senses. I thought about seeing what needs to be done and then doing it—with difficulties along the way, surely, surely, with many decisions to be made and ramifications to be considered, of course, without a doubt—but still: what needs to be done can be done, probably. My hands know what to do with the traysful of instruments, my skills are there when I need them. Scrape away the paint, slowly, delicately. Stretch the canvas and keep the correct tension. There, now, all better, all beautiful again. All fixed, fully in the world of materials and environments and solutions to problems.

(And to get paid for this!)

I know that probably that’s not really what it’s like, at least not all the time. Lots of jobs, lots of things in general, look really cool when you don’t know anything about them. I don’t care, though—I loved my teeny little glimpse into art’s hopeful sickroom and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

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  1. But Chiara, your brain is in your hands, or at least in your fingers. Your writing is so lovely. It paints pictures more perfectly than artists can :). Thanks for the story!

  2. Chiara, the measure of happyness is finding a job that you know you like, you know you’re good at, and most of all, leaves you startled every time someone wants to pay you for… ’cause you’d do it for free, anyway… that’s how much you like it…!!! and if you accept the money is simply because you HAD to stick to someone else’s timetable. This aperitivo you recount might have done just that… expose you to a work that, before math, physics and chemistry, calls for understanding and empathy… but isn’t this Ampersand just that…??? You DO speak the language that you so admire, in my opinion and don’t get payed simply because you do it in your free time…
    Take it from me, my dear, one of your FREE readers…!!!

  3. I was going to say EXACTLY what TreasA said, and I agree with Paolo 100%.