Majors: Chemistry and Art History
Pursuing a career in Art Conservation
What do you call the intersection between art, chemistry and history? Art conservation.
“I was 15 years old when I decided that art conservation was the career path for me. I knew that I loved art and that I loved chemistry, and I wanted to find a way that I could pursue both,” said Katharyn.
But what is art conservation? In the broadest sense, art conservators work to preserve human cultural heritage. That can include documentation, care, preservation and restoration of many different types of artifacts — from cathedrals to paintings to written documents. Conservation scientists work alongside conservators, conducting research on such topics as the chemical makeup of cultural artifacts and the best ways to care for them. Clearly, it’s an incredibly broad field with many different types of opportunities. Katharyn thinks that she might specialize either in paintings conservation or paper conservation because, she said, “the vibrancy of color used in paintings as compared to sculpture or paper really interests me, but most of the art I do involves working with paper and pen.”
There are many different paths to a career in art conservation, and Katharyn is not yet sure which she will take. She explained, “I could get a Ph.D. in chemistry, which would put me in a position to be a conservation scientist. Or, I could get a masters in conservation with a specialization in paintings, paper, etc.” Some conservators do not earn an advanced degree at all, instead gaining the relevant knowledge through experience or “apprenticeships,” although this is becoming increasingly rare. At the moment, Katharyn focuses on the most immediate steps: taking art history classes, chemistry courses and getting experience in studio art and hopefully even gaining internship experience in a conservation lab.
The daily life of a conservator requires great precision and care. Katharyn described a few examples of the sorts of tasks a painting conservator might undertake. "Their work often involves cleaning — with distilled water or often an organic solvent — to remove dirt or yellowed varnish. There’s also inpainting, in which areas of paint loss are covered over with another paint, one that has a different solubility than the original paint layer so that they can be distinguished from each other and the new paint layer can be removed if necessary. It could involve trying to date a work of art through the analysis of pigments with tools like IR and Raman spectroscopy."
Conservation scientists often employ many different tools from chemistry, like mass spectrometry and different forms of spectroscopy, to characterize materials in artifacts. As Katharyn mentioned, this can help shed light on the age of works. It can also help us answer questions about the techniques used by artists to create the pieces and the best ways to chemically preserve them. Consequently, in her chemistry coursework, Katharyn most values the classes that teach such analytical techniques. "My lab courses have been extremely helpful in that way. For anyone interested in pursuing art conservation, I highly recommend CHEM 365, the advanced organic lab course because of its focus on organic reactions (organic is very important for conservation) and because it involves learning at least a little bit about various characterization methods, which are of course very important."
One natural sciences course at Rice also acknowledges the intertwined nature of art and natural science. “CHEM 176, The Chemistry of Art is a course that is basically built with budding conservators in mind, even though it was made to be a course for non majors, and offers an invaluable opportunity to see all the conservation labs at the MFAH,” she said.
Katharyn’s hands-on art education began much earlier than her Rice experience. She credits her unique childhood with allowing her love of art to flourish. "I am very lucky in that my parents developed a love for travel and dragged my sister and me along on whatever trips they took. I developed a love of art by seeing a lot of art in person. Nothing makes you appreciate art more than being an inch away from delicately sculpted lace work or the vibrant colors of a beautiful painting, wondering how someone could possibly create something so lovely."
While classes perhaps may not be as exciting as traveling the world to see great works in person, Katharyn has enjoyed continuing her art education at Rice.
"My favorite art history class by far was the one I took about Dutch Renaissance art. Before that class I had never taken a course which was solely dedicated to art history, and it was really a subject that I knew nothing about. I love the renaissance, but most of the history and art that I knew was from the Italian Renaissance. It was where I came to love my favorite artist, Vermeer. (Actually I have two favorites, Vermeer and Dalí, which is funny because Dalí was actually inspired by Vermeer’s works.) I also really enjoyed a class I took on latin american art and politics because I really appreciated the way the artists that we studied were able to turn their suffering into beauty and were able to use their art to protest the political situations they found unreasonable."
It may seem to an outsider that art conservators and conservation scientists bridge the gap between two disparate worlds, but Katharyn thinks otherwise. Her favorite art period is the Renaissance, not only because of the remarkable “development of art and of society during this time period,” but also because “it was a period in which art and science were really intertwined,” she said. “I wrote a paper for my Dutch renaissance class on how anatomy as a science could not have developed without the aid of art and how the renaissance depiction of anatomy was colored by artistic idealism and typical artistic themes of mortality. It’s something I always think about when someone tells me that art and science are two very different disciplines and that they don’t make sense together because that just hasn’t been my experience, and people haven’t always felt that way."
Katharyn’s story provides a lesson for all of us. We should embrace our curiosity about all things, no matter how apparently unrelated. Humans drew the lines between disciplines, and as such we have the power to cross them — or, better yet, to erase them.