Repairing works of art in Manhattan, post-Hurricane Sandy.
Diana Jaskierny was sixteen the first time she restored a painting.
After correction fluid was splattered on a mural she’d created at her high school, Jaskierny’s father, an electrical engineer for Fermilab, lent her some tools to fix the damage. While that incident got her hooked on art conservation, motivating the Aurora, Illinois, native to spend the subsequent decade learning the craft, it took an act of God to put another damaged painting in her hands.
Jaskierny had just enrolled in Columbia’s Art and Materials Conservation program in the Department of Science and Mathematics—the only undergraduate program of its kind in the Midwest—when Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast, causing $50 billion in damage. So many works of art were damaged by the hurricane and resulting floods that calls for interns with restoration experience went out from museums and private art conservation houses, including GV Art Conservation in Manhattan, where Jaskierny spent winter break. “There was so much flood damage,” laments Gloria Velandia, the firm’s owner and chief conservator. “This is what we will be working on for the next five years.”
Although her studies at Columbia had just begun, Jaskierny, twenty-six, was not offering the services of an academic rookie. Prior to entering Columbia as a second BA student, she had earned a Bachelor of Arts from Dominican University, where she double majored in art history and studio art, and a Master of Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in art history and museum studies. Jaskierny had also studied chemistry at several community colleges, and she had interned with the conservators at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Which brings us to last fall: To further prepare her for the competitive nature of graduate programs in art conservation and restoration, Jaskierny decided to enroll in the Art and Materials Conservation program at Columbia College Chicago.
Her experience, ambition, and attitude came in handy in New York. “Usually when interns come here they do basic tasks, documenting or doing things that are not restoration,” explains Velandia, “but in this particular case we were able to guide her to help clean damaged paintings. She was very helpful, diligent, and enthusiastic.”
Jaskierny photo-documented a number of water-damaged works of art and provided direct hands-on assistance with two paintings. But, she notes, “I did not do the first actions on any pieces. All testing was done by the painting conservator to determine what needed to be done, and I worked on it from there.” Her work included helping repair a large-scale painting from the Abstract Expressionist movement, on which she helped do a surface cleaning. Jaskierny’s explanation underscores the science-immersed nature of art conservation and restoration: “I used 7.5tris:7.5EDTA: Brij100, which is a solution with a 7.5 pH that acts as a buffer and detergent. We first used this same combination at a 6.5 pH and at a 7.0 pH, but found that a 7.5 pH was needed to sufficiently remove the grime layer. After the chemical solution was used, I had to go over it with another swab in distilled water of the matching pH.”
“There’s a misconception that art conservation is all about the art and artists,” explains Dr. Michael Welsh, Associate Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Science and Mathematics and Coordinator of the Art and Materials Conservation major, “but it’s also about hardcore science.” At most colleges and universities, balancing the studio art, art history, and chemistry courses required to apply for graduate programs is a challenge, but Columbia’s program is designed to bundle these studies. “This really prepares students in a way where you don’t have to jump around from school to school as I did,” reflects Jaskierny.
While in New York, Jaskierny also worked on a piece that had been submerged in water from the Hudson River, leaving salt crystals on the surface of the painting, which she helped clean. But it was the unseen part of the work that most concerned Jaskierny and her colleagues at GV Art Conservation: “If moisture seeps through the back of a painting, it can compromise the ground layer, essentially the primer, and once that gets compromised it can cause lifting of paint. We first used a filtered vacuum with a brush, and after that an alkaline buffer solution was sprayed all over the back to prevent any remaining biological particulates from continuing to grow or damage the art. Generally backs of paintings do not need more than a dusting and vacuuming. But when it is damaged by water, those extra steps need to be taken.”
Although the week Jaskierny spent in New York went by quickly, the experience was invaluable. “At first I was nervous working on these pieces, but it was exciting,” she recalls. “I learned firsthand the way you have to learn each painting … learn how it feels, learn how sensitive it is. I’ve always wanted to conserve paintings as my specialty, so this was an amazing opportunity.”
For the present, Jaskierny is hard at work at another internship—a long-term cleaning of a painting for the conservator Bonnie Rimer. In the immediate future, she’s looking forward to the most exciting aspect of Columbia’s Art and Materials Conservation program: the year spent at the Lorenzo de’ Medici Italian International Institute (LdM) in Florence, Italy, studying renaissance techniques and learning the differences between American and European conservation practices. She and the 2011 cohort of Art and Materials Conservation students (the first to enroll in the program) are spending the 2013-14 academic year at LdM.
But looking back on her recent past, Jaskierny is not only grateful for Velandia’s guidance and trust, but also to Columbia for helping prepare her for this and future opportunities. “I had only done my first semester at Columbia when I went to New York, but they already had me studying light theory,” Jaskierny recalls. “So it was great to be able to really appreciate and understand the change in luminosity as we cleaned those paintings. There’s nothing like working in practice.”