ECPN Interview: Wooden Artifacts Conservation with Karen Bishop

By Candace Kang posted 15 days ago

  

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of pathways into specializations within conservation, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) has been conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in a variety of disciplines. We began the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation and continued the series by focusing on practitioners working with Electronic Media. In this interview series, we spoke with members of AIC’s Wooden Artifact Group (WAG). These conservators work with various wooden objects, which can range from furniture and musical instruments to waterlogged wood, frames, and more. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, hoping to inspire new conservation professionals and provide insights into these specialized areas.

For this fourth interview in our WAG interview series, we spoke with @Karen Bishop. Karen is third-year graduate objects conservation intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She will graduate from SUNY Buffalo State College with an M.A. and C.A.S. in Art Conservation next fall. 

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Karen Bishop removing remnant of previous tenon on her Master’s specialization project at Buffalo State,
Ladies Writing Desk by Barry Yavener. Photo courtesy of Sara Kornhauser.

ECPN: Please tell us a little about yourself.

Karen Bishop (KB):
 I am currently a third-year graduate objects conservation intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where I am focusing on wooden artifact treatments and research. Next fall, I will graduate from SUNY Buffalo State College with an M.A. and C.A.S. in Art Conservation.


ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

KB: I was first introduced to conservation through an article my mom clipped for me. I don’t recall the details, but I was intrigued by the description of a day in the life of a conservator. At the time, I was a senior in college studying anthropology and art history at Western Washington University. The common thread of studying humans through material culture was what drew me to both of these disciplines, so the idea of a career where I got to come in close contact with art and artifacts in the pursuit of preservation seemed like a perfect fit.


ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue wooden artifact conservation?

KB: Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I spent a lot of time in the forest, and I feel like this ingrained a kind of natural draw towards wooden artifacts for me. The aesthetic appeal translated into a tactile one when treating wooden objects, and I’ve always felt a certain comfort with and respect for the material. Perhaps that all sounds a bit mystic, but I honestly feel that’s where my strong enthusiasm comes from. Graduate school is such a unique time to tailor projects and internships towards your interest, and I feel fortunate with the experience I’ve been able to gain after choosing to focus on wooden artifact conservation.

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Before Treatment: Overmantel, c. 1675-1677, Grinling Gibbons (British, 1648-1721), lindenwood,
Part 1: 69.3 x 178.4 cm (27 1/4 x 70 3/16 in.); Part 2: 164.5 x 27.3 cm (64 3/4 x 10 11/16 in.);
Part 3: 177.8 x 26.7 cm (70 x 10 1/2 in.). Grace Rainey Rogers Fund 1943.654.
Photo courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

ECPN: What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

KB: My first experience with wooden artifacts was as a pre-program intern at Fine Arts Conservation, a private practice in Los Angeles headed by conservator Irena Calinescu. I had the opportunity to treat a variety of wooden objects, including an intricately carved paneled-rosewood screen. It was an involved treatment which I was able to carry out under the guidance of Irena and a local furniture conservator. This sparked an interest in furniture conservation, so I took several furniture-making courses at Cerritos College Woodworking School to gain a better understanding of traditional construction methods.

Here at Buffalo State, my interest was further piqued by Objects Conservation Professor Jonathan Thornton’s lectures on woodworking technology. His knowledge and impressive collection of historic hand tools and his fully-equipped woodshop have greatly benefited my treatments and general exploration of woodworking. To further build my hand skills, I’ve taken wood carving classes, including one at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum just north of Buffalo.

I had my first graduate level internship last summer in the objects conservation lab at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Under the supervision of conservators Beth Edelstein and Colleen Snyder, my schoolmate Mary Wilcop and I took on the treatment and remounting of a large decorative overmantel created by famed carver Grinling Gibbons. Working on such an exquisitely carved piece was a great experience and cemented my desire to continue working with wooden objects.  


ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline? Can one solely be a ‘wooden artifact conservator,’ or is knowledge of composites and how to treat other materials inherent to the work?

KB: Especially with frames and furniture, conservation often relies on traditional woodworking techniques. Knowing how to select, use and maintain tools is very important. A familiarity with timber preparation is also helpful in understanding how wood reacts over time. In order to successfully repair an object you have to figure out what caused the failure in the first place, so understanding how to properly build something often comes into play.   

Most conservators I’ve been in contact with who specialize in wooden artifacts still consider themselves generalists. Wooden artifacts can incorporate a variety of other materials, whether it be brass inlay on a table or a polychrome sculpture, so knowledge of composites, objects made of several elements of differing material, and how to treat these other parts is certainly inherent to the work.


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Previous installation: Staircase from Cassiobury Park, Herfordshire,  Attrib. to Edward Pearce (ca. 1630–1695).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1932 (32.152). Detail of vertical baluster between two openwork baluster friezes.


ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

KB: Last month I started my third-year internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the first part of my internship, I am joining a team of objects conservators under the supervision of Mecka Baumeister focusing on the treatment of a 1680s staircase from Cassiobury House in Hertfordshire, which will be an architectural highlight in The Met’s new British Galleries. I am currently working on the three balusters of the staircase, which are made of Scots pine (see Image 3). Along with the rest of the staircase, the balusters underwent a thorough stripping in the 1930s before coming into The Met’s collection. Certain areas were then coated with a grey alkyd paint in an attempt to blend the elements together. The compromised surfaces add to the challenge of obtaining a unified appearance among the elm, oak and pine elements after cleaning and painted removal, so I’m always keeping in mind how the balusters relate to the surrounding elements. In addition to treatment, I am studying the design of the carved ornaments applied to both sides of the balusters, tool marks, restorations, and other details that may indicate if they are part of the original manufacture or a later addition.


ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

KB: Being relatively new to the field, I’m not sure how best I can answer this question. As with most specialties in conservation, there’s the issue of commonly used materials that are no longer available due to manufacturing changes. For example, Araldite 1253 is a carvable epoxy commonly used in furniture and frame conservation which the manufacturer recently announced they will no longer be making. Last year there was a thread on the DistList, a conservation forum,  discussing alternatives, which I believe some people were planning to explore further. It’s an important material for filling missing elements, and I’m curious to know what others have come up with for a replacement when their supply runs out.


ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

KB: Again, since I am just starting out I’m hesitant to give any blanketed opinions or advice. However, I would suggest joining the Objects Specialty Group (OSG) and Wooden Artifacts Group (WAG) listserv as an introduction to conservators in these specialties and what kind of projects and research they are working on. It’s also a good way to hear about internship and funding opportunities. As a personal plug, I recently took over Paige Schmidt’s position as WAG ECPN liaison, and I would be more than happy to answer questions or chat with ECP’s who are curious about pursuing wooden artifacts conservation from a current student’s perspective. I can be reached at wag.ecpn.liaison@gmail.com.



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