So Far in Paper
The moment I became entranced by paper and graphic media remains intensely clear. It was late at night in the art department in the old Allyn building at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I wandered into the etching studio and it hit me: the smell and tones of fine paper, the aroma of etching ink. Wow. It’s a feeling I often re-experience in the morning when I first step into my conservation studio. That night the course was set.

This is not to say that there was no prelude to incident. I began to draw before I could speak. There were the grade school linoleum blocks. Around the age of thirteen or fourteen, I resorted to my bedroom to teach myself the rudiments of pen and ink technique by cribbing the styles of Skip Williamson and Robert Crumb from underground comic books. However, ceramics was a love and I had chosen to attend S. I. U. in order to study outdoor monumental ceramics with Nicholas Vergette. Professor Vergette passed away three months prior to my arrival to campus and I lost my polestar. Drawings and prints and their related
materials have provided a steady source of inspiration ever since that evening in the Allyn building. They also provided a path to my first great teacher.

A master draftsman and printmaker, Herbert Fink (1921 - 2006) was one of those rare individuals who redirect and focus. Herb graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and received his M .F. A. from Yale, a student of Josef Albers. I was but one of many who were touched by Herb between the time that he arrived at S. I. U. in 1961 to the when he retired Emeritus in 1987. Herb taught me about silver point drawings, pointed me towards Old Master prints and set up my first visit to a print room with an appointment at the Art Institute of Chicago to see works by Rodolphe Bresdin.

It was extremely fortunate to attend an art program which stressed the acquisition of skills. Hours were spent drawing the figure. Traditional methods were honored. Professors made it clear that there were no short cuts. Since graduating in 1979 I have not held a job that did not deal with art on paper.

Returning to my hometown in Indiana upon graduation, my first job was as a picture framer in the backroom of an art supply store in a strip mall on the north side of Indianapolis. I made prints and drawings and entered local and regional juried shows winning a few prizes. The return to Indiana would prove fortunate in many regards. The revival in handmade paper which began in the 1970's was gaining momentum. Twinrocker paper was an important early hand paper mill in Brookston, Indiana. Through the local art league, I attended daylong workshops with Kathryn and Howard Clark on western handmade paper and later, one with Timothy Barrett on Japanese paper. Also in this period I received my first training in paper conservation by attending a threeday workshop on print restoration taught by pioneer paper conservator and founder of the Northeast Document Conservation Center, George Cunha (1912-1994) at the University of Louisville.

By the time the decision to train as a paper conservator was made I was already well on the way. My love for paper, prints and drawings was fostered while an undergraduate art student. Good fortune had allowed me to study papermaking and gain exposure to some basic training. Little does one realize when making a decision the worlds and opportunities that lay ahead. My goal became acceptance to one of the three graduate training programs for art conservation to train as a paper conservator. In order to be considered for acceptance to a graduate program, further study was necessary in art history and chemistry and practical experience in a conservation lab strongly advised.

The course ahead was rigorous. During one period in the years that followed my decision I found myself working fulltime, volunteering in the paper conservation lab at the Indiana Historical Society and going to night school for chemistry. It was a difficult time. Encouraged to apply to the programs as early as possible, in order to gain attention, I was returning from chemistry class one day, driving in a minor blizzard. My truck gave out along the way so I walked the final mile home to find my rejection letter in the mailbox.

However my efforts were rewarded, at times in flukey ways. Dr. Leon Stodulski, former
conservation scientist at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, turned up as a lab instructor at the local Purdue University extension campus in Indianapolis. Dr. Stodulski would write a letter of recommendation when my second application to graduate school was submitted. An acquaintance had been made with Martin Krause, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Indianapolis Museum of Art while taking his course on the history of printmaking at the Herron School of Art. When the position of printroom manager came open at the museum, it was offered to me. The opportunity to talk about prints with Marty,
be present when dealers came through and examine the contents of solander boxes at will was tremendous. The job mainly entailed prepping print and drawing exhibitions and maintaining the collection. The printroom was on the same floor as the library and as long as the work flowed my time was largely my own. It was in the print department at the Indianapolis Museum of Art where my education truly took another step.

By the time my second application to the graduate schools was submitted, they really couldn’t deny me and they didn’t. My resume says SUNY-Buffalo but my class was the last to attend two years at the conservation program in Cooperstown. The building for the graduate program was perched on the edge of an upstate New York finger lake with a wildlife station in the basement, about a mile north of town. Cooperstown had but one stoplight and very long winters. There was little to do but study and one normally devoted at least fourteen hours a day to the endeavor.

Attending the Buffalo Art Conservation Program made everything which has followed possible. It was there that my eyes were opened to the rich world of paper and artist’s materials. In many ways the conservation program was the best fine arts program I could have attended as it exposed me to the history of technique and media. A secondary advantage was having checkout privileges at the New York State Historical Society where I could take home first editions by the western explorer Zebulon Pike, artist and museum founder Charles Wilson Peale and early botanists, the Michauxs. The two years of class work,
interspersed with summer internships in Oklahoma City and Kansas City, passed quickly in retrospect but were interminable at times during those long dark upstate winters.

The reputation of Marjorie B. Cohn looms large in the field of paper conservation. Author of an extensive number of articles and numerous books, one of the most important being Wash and Gouache: A Study of the Development of  the Materials of Watercolor, she also revised and expanded the print identification classic by William M. Ivins, Jr., How Prints Look. Jerry would later serve as Curator of Prints at the Fogg and as Acting Director of the museum. Advanced Internships at the Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies were open to both third-year and postgraduate conservation students and highly sought.

The bar was set high for Jerry’s students. An example: on the first day of the internship I arrived to find a stack of Old Master prints on my work table to be examined and treated. They were being deaccessioned to raise funds for the purchase of the Spencer Albums. One of the prints, Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt had a large tear extending downward from the right upper edge. Three times the tear was mended before the effort met with satisfaction. When the catalogue for the auction containing the print came out, the mended tear went unmentioned. Jerry’s reaction was one of bemusement and chagrin at the small bit of hoodwinkery that had been pulled off unintentionally and pride in the achievement of her student.

Jerry was endlessly encouraging. I requested and received time to “simply look” Every Friday
afternoon my co-intern and I would go to the print room or drawing study. There we poured over impressions by Rembrandt, Durer and Ugo di Carpi. I will long remember the pleasure of sitting in the drawing study room and holding a framed William Blake watercolor on my lap. The paper conservation lab served as a focal point at the Fogg for art history students and professors alike. Scholars such as Stuart Cary Welch and Seymour Slive would drop by unannounced to chat about goings-on in the art and museum world. Jerry was an active collector and shared this enthusiasm openly with her interns. She was pleased when she could loan funds to a student to purchase a desirable find. I had started collecting art on
paper while in Cooperstown with a plate from Alexander Wilson’s Ornithology and a 1671 view of Mexico City found in the drawers of a local frame shop. In Cambridge my Saturdays were often spent visiting antique and junk shops. It was the discovery of an unsigned, 19th-century watercolor of a dead finch, exquisite in detail and rich in color that inspired the kindest accolade Jerry could have delivered. Upon showing the work to her, Jerry said in a rather subdued, matter of fact tone that I possessed “the eye”. Her only disappointment was that it wasn’t necessary to extend a loan for the purchase.

During the Fogg internship my investigation began into the history of the restoration of prints. The point of transition from my viewing prints (and drawings) as aesthetic objects to cultural objects is difficult to establish. It was in the first weeks of arrival at the Fogg that I began to peruse 19th-century print collector’s manuals. Many contained directions for restoring prints. I grew increasingly fascinated with the history of print collecting. In need of a research project required by the internship, I mentioned my interest and initial forays to Jerry who said she thought the subject would make a good project. Bang! The green light went on and I was off and running with the subject which would occupy my fascination and open many wonderful doors. In the following years I poured through every historic collector’s manual, artist’s instruction manual and compendia of popular receipt that could be located looking for early restoration instructions. I sifted through print collections and spoke (endlessly, it must have seemed) to curators, conservators and dealers in the United States, Canada and in Europe. It has been a wonderful education in the world of prints and paper.

Marjorie Cohn was my finest teacher. I will always be touched and impressed her devotion to her students and to the Fogg. It was at the Fogg that I began to fully grasp the breadth of the undertaking required to conserve a work of art.

The next move was to Washington, D.C. where I had been awarded a post-graduate Mellon
Fellowship in the paper conservation lab at the National Gallery of Art. In contrast to the cozy and familiar confines of the Fogg, the National Gallery was a bit cold and corporate. However the art and facilities were top tier and the fellowship allowed the time and funds to continue research into the history of print restoration. As a result of the generosity of the Mellon Foundation, which included a stipend for travel the high points of the fellowship were two research trips to Europe. The first consisted of three weeks in England where I met with paper conservators at the British Museum as well as private restorers Jane McAusland and Philip Stevens. Research was undertaken at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the National Fine Arts Library, the Royal Academy of Science, the library at the house of Sir John Sloane and of course, the British Library. It was at the British Library where the earliest known written instructions for the restoration of prints were found in the de Mayerne manuscript.

The second trip was made to Amsterdam where I met with paper conservators at the Rijksmuseum and the Tylers Museum in Haarlem. Other meetings were held with Ernst Van Wetering of the Rembrandt Project and print dealer Theo Laurentius. One of the sweetest afternoons of my life was spent sipping tea and eating chocolates and orange sections in the eighteenth-century orangerie outside Leiden where Mr. Laurentius lived with his family, discussing prints and paper while he played the dulcimer and hurdy-gurdy from his collection of antique musical instruments. While in the Netherlands trips were made to the Rembrandt House, the Koenigs-Boymans Museum in Rotterdam and the Plantin-Moretus Museum
in Antwerp.

The two years spent in D.C. were a rich experience. Living a mere seven blocks from the
Smithsonian Mall offered a unique opportunity to experience the Capital and take in our nation’s rich collections. However my Midwestern heart strings were pulling and I longed to return to my homeland. So motivated, I did not renew my Fellowship for its optional third year nor apply for the entry level positions which opened at the time in the paper conservation labs of both the Fogg and the National Gallery. Rather, the sole application for employment made was for an position open at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

I would be the third paper conservator at the Nelson within a span of ten years. The prior two conservators had found the position untenable as would I. Much is better left unsaid. It will suffice to say that I was made out to be the bad guy for taking the ashtray out of print storage. At my urging the position of paper conservator was closed and the museum has not had a staff paper conservator since 1993.

While the position was deeply problematic, the collection at the Nelson is sterling. The prints in many cases existed largely as they had come off the market in the 1930's when the formation of the collection was initiated by Paul Gardner, the museum’s first director, with the input of John Bender. Gardner had been a student of Paul Sachs at the Fogg. Sachs is recognized as the founder of American drawings connoisseurship. Bender was a prints and drawings dealer based in Kansas City who purchased internationally and eventually gave both his collection and his library to the Nelson. Together the two men put together a core collection rich in desirable impressions. The neglect that the collection had received in the ensuing years meant that little had been done to the prints in terms of their conservation. In the collection were numerous prints which had received treatments which may be described as surreptitious. False watermarks were present in some cases as were examples of duplicitous mends and inpainting. For an individual with my research interests the collection was a goldmine.

At this point it is necessary to touch upon the personal as it was at the Nelson that I met the
woman I would marry. We dated briefly before she left Kansas City for doctoral studies in Chinese Art history at Princeton University. For a year the relationship was maintained before we married and I left the Nelson to follow her to New Jersey. My first private conservation studio was set up in the spare bedroom of our Princeton University graduate student housing. While struggling to set up a practice, full use was made of my checkout privileges at Princeton. A personal study of antique Middle Eastern papers was undertaken. It was during this period that the position of Visiting Scholar was awarded and a semester was spent teaching the history of paper and graphic materials at the art conservation program at The Institute for Fine Arts at New York University.

However, the marriage did not survive the stresses of the situation. I returned to Kansas City to continue the private practice which supports me to this day. After fifteen years in private practice a tremendous amount of material has passed over my work table. Some of it has been wonderful, some mundane. I have treated dog-chewed art, gunshot art, slashed art and trashed art and much that is inbetween. There have been moments of great reward when treatments have gone well and moments, not many fortunately, of utter terror and dismay when treatments have gone awry. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be entrusted with the conservation of private collectors' and institutions' works on paper and count my blessings on a daily basis. For a kid who grew up on his great grandfather’s farm in the sticks of Indiana its been pretty wonderful. And it all traces back to a single, serendipitous
moment in the Allyn Building.

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Copyright © 2008 by Mark Stevenson Paper Conservation. All rights reserved.  Revised: 08/23/08 01:59:29 -0400.