Ocean Springs — When Sharon D. Blank was a little girl growing up outside of New York City, she loved the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art so much she dreamed of being locked in there for the night. While that never happened, her profession as an art conservator has taken her to up close views of some of the world’s most amazing art.
“My first trip working as an art conservator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was taking three tons of mosaics to the Vatican Museum,” Blank said. “I got to go up into the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel, and watch them restoring Michelangelo’s frescoes. I was completely unprepared for what an exalting experience it would be seeing this great art.”
Being an art conservator is a unique profession in itself. And being a plastics and rubber art conservator is especially out of the norm.
“Even in my profession I’m very unusual,” says Blank, who was hired by the Walter Anderson Museum of Art (WAMA) after a nationwide search for someone to restore the Walter Anderson linoleum blocks damaged during Hurricane Katrina. The blocks carved from linoleum are covered with paint, with paper rolled over the blocks to make the prints that have come to be the signature art of Ocean Springs.
Art conservators, she explains, are the people who work in the basements of museums taking care of art. They do both hands on restoration, and also evaluate the impact of environmental issues such mold, moisture, temperatures, insects and fumigating chemicals. Fumigating chemicals can have a negative impact on art, especially art made from plastics and rubber.
Blank got her undergraduate degree in biochemistry, and then worked as a research assistant in neurobiology and anatomy at the Harvard Medical School. She was planning on working to get a Ph.D. at Harvard, but after working for a while realized it wasn’t her true passion.
“I was always interested in art, and learned that there was a career in art conservation that is a wonderful combination of art and science,” Blank said. “I applied to get into an art conservation school. When I applied, it was more competitive to get into than medical school. I had two years of apprenticeship before I even got into graduate school, where I received a master’s degree in art conservation.”
When she was attending graduate school, no one was working on plastics.
“It was just too weird and scary,” Blank said. “I was really intrigued with the problems of it, and had the biochemistry to be able to understand what was going on. So I actually became one of the pioneers in the field.”
Some people might think “plastic” and “art” are an oxymoron. But sculptors like Naum Gabo started working with plastics in the 1920s. In addition to art, Blank also works to preserve and restore historical plastics, as well.
Blank was living in a small town in Arizona before she was hired by WAMA to restore the blocks damaged by Katrina. All of the blocks were stored in special crates at an off-site storage vault which sustained heavy damage during the hurricane including the loss of its roof.
Restoring the blocks has proven to be a challenging job.
“The project is more complex and bigger than anyone knew,” Blank said. “Not only have they been very chemically altered by immersion in water, but there are five or six types of linoleum, and each is chemically different. So I have to use different materials on each one of them. One of the tricky things is to preserve every aspect. The ink the artist used comes off in water, so I can’t use water. I can’t use solvents without dissolving the linoleum. And they are very fragile.”
She is restoring 175 block prints, and about 50 are about as big as she is. Pieces have flaked off. But one advantage is that the images are widely available to recreate what was there.
“If I need to, I know what the image looks like because so many were printed and are in collections all over the region,” Blank said. “They are in homes, banks and lawyer offices around the region.”
Blank has a profession that calls for a lot of travel, which she loves. She can work from home and travel anywhere. She decided to move to Ocean Springs and make it her base.
“It is a beautiful part of the country,” she said. “I wanted to live in the Southeast for a while, and the project sounded so interesting. People are just so from the heart here, which I have really enjoyed. Everyone has taken me under their wing, which has been lovely.”
The block prints allow reproduction of art at an affordable cost. Walter Anderson believed that art should be a part of everyday life by being available at a cost anyone could afford. He used linoleum blocks to develop art, which could be easily reproduced and sold inexpensively.
“The recovery of these important objects was a priority for the museum,” said Gayle Petty-Johnson, executive director of WAMA. “The storage facility was so heavily damaged that removal of the blocks and their crates required the assistance of a team of National Guard members. Some of the blocks are very large. In the mid 20th Century someone mounted the linoleum blocks to a plywood backing which was wet and added to the weight. We could not have accomplished this move without the Guard.”
Petty-Johnson said Blank is one of only three conservators in North American qualified to work on a project of this type and scale.
In addition to the block prints, Blank also recently headed up a team from the Winterthur’s Conservation Program to preserve the Walter Anderson murals on the walls of the Ocean Springs Community Center that were declared a national treasure in 2005. The murals of the natural environment and history of the Gulf Coast attract visitors from all over the country.
“The Walter Anderson murals in the Ocean Springs Community Center are clearly our most valuable artistic asset,” said Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran. “We are grateful that city and county officials had the foresight in 1950 to support Walter Anderson in this public service project, and it is our duty to follow suit to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.”
The Mellon Foundation funded a grant to send students from art conservation training programs in the U.S. to various institutions throughout the Gulf Coast to help with conservation of art. Five students joined Blank and another art conservator to help stabilize the murals to prevent further deterioration.
“Stabilizing the flaking paint of the murals is essential to their preservation,” Blank said. “The stabilization will allow the paint to remain in place just until the environmental problems of the building are solved and a full treatment can occur. I know I am speaking for the entire conservation team in saying that we are delighted to do our part in preserving the community center murals. It isn’t the entire answer. It is just buying some time so we don’t lose the images.”
Blank does her own art work, as well. Most conservators do. Painting conservators have to be good painters themselves.
“I get to have fun, too,” Blank said.
The oldest object she has worked on is a Neanderthal bone tool. In between, she has worked on everything from ancient Egyptian to contemporary artwork. The biggest thing she has worked on is a house made of beer cans, and she is also working on a project to preserve the first airplane that was flown around the world.
Her life has not been boring.
“I have been so blessed with what I have been able to see and do in my life,” Blank said. “I really feel privileged to be able to work on the beautiful things I have worked on.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.