When we ask painting conservator Kate Smith to show us how she cleans a painting, she does not lead us to her high-tech X-ray or even to the collection of paintbrushes and tin of acrylics laying on a nearby table. Instead, with the dexterity of having done it 100 times before, Smith grabs a pinch of cotton from a box and wraps it around a skewer to form a swab.
Then, she does the completely unexpected: sticks the swab in her mouth like a lollipop, pulls it out, and begins to rub the damp cotton across the surface of the painting laid before us, a work by pioneering Black portraitist, Barkley L. Hendricks: “October’s Gone… Goodnight.”
The swab-in-mouth technique is a common tool of the trade, Smith assures us, enabling art conservators to collect varnish samples for chemical analysis to determine how best to dissolve the yellow varnish that has accumulated over Hendricks’ work, for instance.
Her intimate proximity to paintings differs from the plebeian museum goer’s protocol: don’t-touch-don’t-blink-don’t-breathe-that-looks-expensive. For Smith, getting up close and personal with the artwork is necessary to conserve a piece while staying true to the artist’s original artistic vision.
When possible, Smith and her team are vigilant about capturing the intentions behind the work in their collections straight from the living artists themselves.
“We interview them about their materials and techniques, their ideas about how art degrades over time, and how they would want that to be interfered with or not,” she explains.
Smith interviewed Hendricks on “October’s Gone…Goodnight” just two weeks before his death, documenting the nuances embedded in his work.
“This is actually acrylic paint with titanium pigment,” she says, pointing to one area of the painting, “and this is oil paint with zinc pigments,” pointing to another. “He was making these really subtle tweaks in his palette to get these subtle changes.”
“October’s Gone… Goodnight” will be sent on loan with other Hendricks portraits to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will be placed in critical dialogue with European portraiture. For Smith and her team, the upcoming event heightens the importance of maintaining fidelity to Hendricks' vision.
“He isn’t with us any longer, which is a shame because I think he would love to see that show,” Smith says. “That’s why this to me is so powerful. I want to do right by him now.”
But, Smith admits that the conservation process is seldom perfect. “It’s statistically impossible to be in this close proximity to a collection and not eventually make a mistake,” she says.
Smith shares an example of a slip up in her preparation of “Negro Soldier,” a painting that was set to be displayed in the grand opening of the Harvard Art Museum’s new building. “It was looking amazing, and I was so excited,” she says.
Typically, Smith is very organized and analytical with her work — “I’m very Capricorn,” she says. This time, however, Smith had forgotten to test her cleaning solution. “I got to the part of his uniform and I etched into the paint, I rolled it, and part of my swab took some of the paint off,” she says.
Smith winces, like she’s living out her mistake all over again. “I just wanted to die, because no one had ever restored the painting,” she says. “I was the first one to touch it, and I had done this thing.”
After the mistake, Smith tested out a new cleaning solution, then repaired the damaged uniform with a tiny in-painting — a small reconstruction of the missing or damaged part in the painting. Smith hasn’t made a mistake like that since, she tells us: “Maybe that bought me another decade of not making any mistakes, because I’ll never forget that feeling.”
When we walk past “Negro Soldier” on our way out of the gallery, it is impossible to tell that anything happened to it.
Within the world of art conservation, talking about restoration failures can feel taboo. But Smith’s experience with “Negro Soldier” convinced her that sharing mistakes can offer conservators a valuable opportunity to learn from one another. “Everybody has a story,” she says. “And if we don’t talk about it, people will continue to hide it.”
As a conservator, Smith often grapples with the ethics of museum collection curation.
Last August, Smith and three other museum staff workers installed “Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt: Facing Forward,” a collection of fragmented funerary materials that were once attached to the mummified deceased they depict. The text label invites patrons to “consider the problematic practices that led to the removal of these objects from their original contexts.”
“They’re tough to look at — but they’re beautiful,” says Smith. “That sort of tension, rather than ignore it, talk about it.”
Smith also thinks that, within conservation, there should also be a reckoning about the lack of diversity. Among art conservators, about 65 percent are women and 80 percent of them are white women.
“The people who are doing the work are bringing their understanding to the collections,” Smith says. “A big push in the field is: How do we work with changing who we are? Who’s in these labs doing this work?”
In 2022, the Museum created the Diversity Pre-Program Junior Conservator Fellow, helping to prepare aspiring conservators for the convoluted conservator training application process and ultimately diversify the field. According to Martha Tedeschi, director of the Harvard Art Museums, Smith plays a key role in the fellow’s experience as a “fantastic mentor.” In Tedeschi’s words: “she’s a star.”
Smith hopes to keep her dream job for as long as she can. “I can’t believe I get to work here,” she says. “Our cultural heritage — of any kind — it’s part of our human soul. Making sure that it lives as long as it can is really important to me.”
Correction: March 2, 2023
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Barkley L. Hendricks.
— Magazine writer Nicolas Dominguez-Carrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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