Mary Sebera, Senior Painting Conservator at the BMA
Meticulously rejuvenating paintings, inch by inch
Published: December 28, 2011
Mary Sebera, an unassuming woman with short brown hair, stands in her sunlit workspace in the Baltimore Museum of Art, a nearly 10-foot-tall painting towering above her. “I think I have done most of what I need to do for it,” she says. The piece is “At the Bathers Pool (Venus Is Still Venus),” a 1985 work by African-American painter Robert Colescott. It depicts three women—one white and two black—wading in a vibrant teal-hued pool, while two other women look on.
The senior paintings conservator at the museum, and, in fact, the only conservator who works on paintings, Sebera had just spent nearly a week painstakingly removing grime and tiny carpet fibers from the massive painting, going over the entire surface with a moistened cotton swab the size of a Q-tip. She wears a magnifying headset, at times lying prone on the floor, at others standing on a stepstool. And while cleaning the back of the canvas, which had been hidden behind a backing board, Sebera discovered something interesting. The painting had long been known by the title above, but there on the stretcher, in the artist’s hand, was the phrase “Three Graces: Venus Is Still Venus.” “These kinds of interesting things turn up in paintings all the time,” Sebera says. “In this case we really did learn something about the artist and the way he thought of the painting.” (The BMA has contacted the gallery that represents Colescott, and the title may soon officially change to reflect Sebera’s discovery.)
Sebera, who has worked in conservation at the BMA for more than two decades, is quick to acknowledge that her line of work calls for a certain temperament. Patience and acceptance of tedium are prerequisites, as, of course, is attention to detail. “It’s all about being careful, and being respectful to the work is very important.” But she is a woman who clearly loves her job. “I find it very satisfying,” she says. “I like the objects.” Sebera seems to have an affection for her charges, and a level of intimacy with them akin, nearly, to that of the artist. She retrieves a small 1856 Edgar Degas self-portrait from a storage room and walks it into the light. “Now this is a cute little thing,” she says. Sebera recently removed a layer of discolored varnish from the work and did some toning to harmonize an old repair with the original painting.
Over the years, Sebera has worked on Pop Art, on Old Masters, on Rembrandts. Once, memorably, she treated Cezanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From Bibemus Quarry”; in the process of cleaning the yellowed varnish, the gray-blue sky turned cerulean. “It was very humbling,” Sebera says. As for the treatment itself, she says it was “not a scary kind” because Cezanne used strong, solid paints and did not use glazes, which can make a painting delicate. “He was a great technician and a great craftsman,” she says.
It so happens that most of the paintings Sebera is currently working on are relatively contemporary. But the approach she takes to each one remains highly individualized. On a table flanked by rolling carts laden with brushes, swabs, and paints lies a painting that is slated for loan, “Resortscape,” an abstract, geometric piece from the 1950s by Baltimore native Amalie Rothschild. The canvas has a slight ripple to it, the painting has been restretched a bit off center, and the paint is flaking in several places. Sebera trains the lens of a large Swiss microscope onto a lime-green area near the bottom. Through the lens, gorge-like cracks come into focus, with the fabric support and the white ground layer visible below the paint surface. Few visitors would likely notice the damage from a passing glance, but Sebera experiences art museums a bit differently than most. “Oh, I notice it! I can see it from across the room,” she says. “You can always tell the conservators. They’re always going like this.” She sidles up to the Colescott painting, head cocked sideways. “Is that too shiny? Does that color match?”
Sebera has already delicately applied consolidant to the cracks in the Rothschild painting. Next she and the curator must decide whether to restretch the painting to center it more accurately and amend the ripple. She may also apply paint to the cracks, over the consolidant. Sebera uses paints specifically formulated for conservation, and because the painting is an oil, Sebera will use acrylics, which can easily be removed. (Were she to do inpainting—the process of replacing lost areas of paint—on an acrylic, she might use watercolor paints, for the same reason.) She paints in the same orientation the viewer sees the painting. “The layering is important, the angles that the brush strokes relate to the thickness and so forth are really important,” Sebera says. “Because, you know, just the teeniest movement with your hand can make a huge difference in the way a passage looks in the end.”
Yet each painting requires a different strategy, and some can present quite a puzzle. “New Lots Express Brooklyn,” an atmospheric 1934 painting of a subway scene by Reginald Marsh, sits on an easel near the window. “It’s been in the vault for years and years and years, and David [Curry, curator of American painting, among other areas] was very interested in it,” Sebera says. “It was very monochrome, very dark and heavy and thick.” But Sebera was nervous about treating the painting because of Marsh’s unusual technique. An egg tempera painting on wood panel, the work has the smooth look of a lithograph rather than that of a painting. No brush strokes are visible. So before beginning her work, Sebera visited museums in New York City and Philadelphia to examine other Marsh paintings in person. “I wanted to be sure that I did it right,” she says. She ended up reducing the discolored varnish rather than removing it altogether. “Rather than using a big swab that was nice and plump and full of liquid that would slosh all over, I used a dry and really controlled swab,” she says. “And then I decided it was better just to stop. You find that it’s always better to stop a little too soon.”
Sometimes, technology can help. Sebera occasionally dissolves consolidant into a liquid and uses a nebulizer, the inhaler asthmatics use, to disperse the solution over porous paint, which absorbs the mist; she once used that technique on a Warhol. And sometimes she employs the museum’s new X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, or XRF, a device that tells the user which elements are present in a substance. It is, in general, more useful for conservators who work with objects because it can, for instance, help identify an alloy in a sculpture or the components of a metal thread in a textile. But Sebera uses it from time to time as well. As part of the George A. Lucas collection of French art, the museum owns some 70 artist palettes, which Lucas collected from artist friends. Using the XRF, Sebera has been analyzing the splotches of paint on these palettes, hoping to arrive at a better understanding of their components.
An orderly palette that belonged to French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix sits in Sebera’s storage room. Sebera says the XRF may tell her what elements are present, but she must then work backward to figure out the chemical composition of the splotch and identify it as a particular green or blue or red. But it is hardly ever simple. “In the case of Delacroix,” she says, “apparently he premixed his paints before putting them on his palette. So he could have, like, three paints in one dab. There’s a lot of sleuthing and research and knowledge of painting process and technique and materials that goes into this.”
Busy as she is here, Sebera’s work is not restricted to treating paintings. She consults with curators about new acquisitions, assesses whether facilities that have requested a painting on loan are appropriate to house it, conducts research, and often travels with paintings when they are sent out on loan—as the Colescott soon will be, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago—to ensure they are treated properly every step of the way. When the BMA sponsors traveling exhibitions as it recently has—a portion of the Cone Collection just visited the Jewish Museum in New York and will travel on to Vancouver next summer—Sebera tags along. She checks everything before it goes in the crates and when the pieces are unpacked, she is there to look them over once more and oversee their installation. And finally, when a work is deinstalled, Sebera dons her magnifying headset once more, approaches her charge, and patiently examines each and every inch.
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