Even on a gloomy day, Klara Zold’s art conservation studio at 271 Wall Street in Corning is filled with light. It streams through skylights, bounces off white-painted walls and a light-colored floor. It focuses attention on works of art that have been hurt or grime-darkened with the passage of time, and thus need meticulous, informed care to return them to their once-vibrant selves.
Art conservation is a complex discipline involving a deep knowledge of art history and chemistry, and a variety of studio art skills. It’s a healing art, sometimes using tools and a philosophy similar to that of a physician, including using as little intervention as possible, observing the “patient” closely, working gently to bring things back to normal.
Klara says she was always attracted to art and design, this from her earliest years when she sewed with the women in her family and thought she might become a fashion designer.
“I love color and texture, designing and making my own patterns,” she says. A shared passion for study took Klara and her husband, Peter, from Romania to Canada, where she studied art and became particularly interested in frescos. That led in graduate school to studying art conservation under a variety of mentors.
“It comes down to how many paintings you’ve handled,” she explains. She moved to Corning and established her conservation laboratory and studio here seven years ago when Peter was recruited to work for the Rackow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass.
There are several areas of specialization among conservators, each requiring particular skills. Objects to be restored can range from submarines to crystal; paper conservators work with drawings, photographs, and watercolors. Painting conservators like Klara treat painted objects including frescos, polychrome sculptures, and paintings. In recent years, she has worked most often on nineteenth century oil paintings. Some are owned by museums, some by private individuals.
She lifts one from the vacuum hot lining table, a structure about the size of a large dining table, used to help adhere additional supporting fabric to the back of a torn or deteriorated canvas. The back of this painting has been reinforced with additional fabric, something she tries to avoid unless a large tear makes it necessary. Canvas can also be mended using fine needles and those sewing skills Klara honed early on. The studio is also equipped with a fume extractor for the times she works with solvents, a microscope, and a variety of lights. Behind a sliding door is her personal art studio, which also serves as Peter’s music studio. For relaxation, Klara paints abstract works in oil. A bright red swing hanging from the ceiling in her painting studio can take her into either room when the door is open and her husband has been known to tease her when she’s on the swing—is she going to work or is she going to play? The distinction isn’t always important, she says, because she enjoys it all.
The conservator’s process begins with a detailed examination of an old or damaged work, under different lights. She’ll take photos and notes at every stage of the restoration process. Cracks in an old oil painting “can be aging or mechanical,” she says, adding that “aging cracks are important, they’re part of the chemical process and they can be beautiful.”
But if a painting got hit or scratched from behind, repairs may be called for. A painting on the wall can absorb dust, pollution, and grime from the people sharing its space, dulling its colors and beauty, so she also considers how to clean it. One of her professors made students invest hours in learning how to create a perfect tiny cotton swab as a tool since Q-tips have the wrong shape and could cause damage.
“It seems like a small thing, but you have to pay constant attention to details,” she says, noting that she must consider the least invasive method to achieve the artistic goal. “It’s the most exciting moment in cleaning when you can figure out what will give the best result.”
One of the paintings in her studio was previously cleaned in a restoration attempt that removed some of the original paint. She saw some of the coloration on the grapes in a still life that had appeared when the original artist hadn’t fully cleaned his brush between colors—a painting habit she’d once been scolded for in fine arts classes. The previous cleaner tried to remove this, unfortunately, with some success. Seeing the centuries-old traces of the same habit in the painting on her work table was delightful, and also made her determined to respect the integrity, and the mistakes, of the original.
Once the painting is clean and stable, repairs to the surface may be made. “In-painting” replicates the brush-strokes and colors of the original. Klara says it’s as though she’s meeting the painter.
“It’s like a conversation with them,” she says. “That color? Really? Why? And, okay, you used this brush. I am following...” generally by using an extremely tiny brush, not the one the artist might have used. And at the end, there’s the satisfying final comment to the long-gone artist: “Okay, here is your painting, back to normal.” Great moments, she says, are always there.
Before beginning her private practice, Klara worked in the school lab and in museums, where she had the company of other conservators and the benefit of highly sophisticated equipment. Surprising results can sometimes emerge when a painting is X-rayed, like the time an entirely different, older portrait was discovered behind the one on the surface. Both subjects were pictured in the same dress, but the heads had been changed. She clearly loved that environment, but she also finds special rewards in working with clients in her own studio, hearing the stories behind their pictures, bringing pictures back to life. Sometimes these are rare and valuable works whose worth can’t be measured by the market. Once, she recalls, she had a heartbroken client whose art was vandalized, damaging treasured works painted by the woman’s mother. One piece, an antique teddy bear, was referred to an objects conservator, while Klara went to work on the paintings. “When I’m finished, the painting should look like nothing happened,” she says. They talked about the work, and the client slowly came to believe the paintings could be returned to their former state. “Of course it’s exciting to have a painting by a master,” Klara says, “but here is a client for whom it makes a big difference.”
Those older stories may be told now, but because confidentiality is all important, what’s happening now in the studio can’t be discussed or pictured. At any time there are two to four works in residence, belonging to clients who will receive them back in a few months’ time. “I absolutely enjoy that happiness of a client whose painting can go up on the wall again,” Klara says.