Meet the Staff is a blog post series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. This installment of Meet the Staff is released in conjunction with our series for the American Library Association’s Annual Preservation Week, which highlights work in the Ransom Center’s preservation and conservation division.
Working under a microscope with a tiny brush, paper conservator Jane Boyd applies a solvent and adhesive to the fragile areas of a Miguel Covarrubias painting. The solvent carries the adhesive under the paint layer, which consolidates the paint layer to help prevent further chipping.
The painting is one of many gouache paintings in the Ransom Center’s Covarrubias collection that is beginning to experience paint flaking. “A museum in San Antonio wanted to exhibit these paintings,” says Boyd, “but we had to turn them down because they’re currently too fragile to handle and ship.” Flaking paint is a common problem with gouache paintings on paper. There are many factors that may be causing the media to flake, including how thickly the paint was applied or the quality of the materials used.
The preservation and conservation division is seeking a grant to hire someone to help with the project. “As you can imagine, this work is incredibly time-intensive,” Boyd notes. “As much as I like detail work, I can share the fun.” As we set priorities with curators for which collection items will receive treatment in the near term, we will also target cohesive collections with particular needs.
Conservation is a unique field because it combines the chemistry of materials science with appreciation for art, culture, and history. Boyd becomes closely engaged with her work when she reflects on the significance of the pieces in the Ransom Center collections. “I love digging through to find the levels of scholarship.” Currently, Boyd is working with a set of original courtroom drawings for The Washington Post, recently acquired materials that enhance the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers.
These drawings, done in black marker and ink, primarily on vellum paper, were mock-ups Post editors used when planning newspaper layouts. Accordingly, the pieces are affixed to illustration board with archival and masking tape, with corresponding titles, sizing, printer instructions, and traffic department stamps.
Over time, adhesive from the tape can seep into the images and damage them. Boyd is evaluating these pieces to determine which ones need the most attention. Like many projects, Boyd must grapple with the question of artist intention. These mock-ups were drafts. To what extent should tape and tears be removed? These imperfections, if kept, could provide helpful clues for researchers. For projects like this one, Boyd consults Ransom Center conservators and seeks curatorial knowledge about the items in question to determine what would best preserve the integrity of the piece.
Having lived through the Watergate hearings, Boyd is especially fascinated by this collection. “When I’m working with materials, I often find myself wishing I could learn all about them. I’ll get really involved in one treatment, but I have to move on because there are seven or eight others that I need to be working on, too.”
Jane Boyd was one of the first three assistant conservators hired into the conservation program in 1980. Don Etherington, former Assistant Director and Chief Conservation Officer at the Ransom Center, had just developed a comprehensive conservation program for the collections. He designed the book, paper, and photographic labs and training programs for budding conservators. Boyd started out in the book lab, where she received hands-on training. Before working here, she had begun to pursue a graduate degree in art history at The University of Texas at Austin, but left the program because the Center’s rigorous training program was teaching her the professional skills she needed for conservation.
Boyd was also drawn to conservation because of her life-long interest in creating art. As a child, Boyd would spend hours drawing. Making something three-dimensional on a blank page fascinated her. This fascination explains her affinity for paper conservation. “I’ve always had an affinity for art on paper. To me, it feels closest to art. I didn’t feel as in tune with different processes—book, photo, or other materials—as I did with the possibilities in the paper world. I love working with ink, pencils, and print media.”
When Boyd returned to the Ransom Center in 2003, after a period of freelancing, she got started on one of her biggest projects. The Ransom Center had acquired the voluminous archive of the British theatrical costumier B. J. Simmons & Co. From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces, and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons also provided costumes for over 100 films including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.
Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the collection was being preserved, arranged, described, and partly digitized. The collection includes more than 30,000 costume drawings, thousands of which had to be unfolded, humidified, and flattened by Boyd and other Ransom Center conservators, under the supervision of Stephanie Watkins, then head of the paper lab. Many of the drawings included fabric swatches, from which conservators had to remove countless rusty pins.
Conservators have a keen eye for detail, and Boyd is no exception. Boyd reflects that, “Not everyone is well-suited to repetitive work, but it doesn’t bother me. I love the methodical aspects of conservation, the fussiness of getting everything just right.” Ultimately, Boyd’s love for conservation stems from her interest in creative problem solving and her love of fixing things. “I love restoring things from a broken state to whole again.”