Community Watercolor Roundtable panelist from left to right, Rebecca Pollak, Joesph Whalen, and Judith Walsh

Community Watercolor Roundtable panelist from left to right, Rebecca Pollak, Joesph Whalen, and Judith Walsh

You’ve got to leave the mummies alone.

Monday, March 4, 2013

You’ve got to leave the mummies alone by Kathy Gaye Shiroki

The first Community Watercolor Roundtable, part of the International Center for Watercolor, was held on Thursday evening, February 21. The open discussion format invited the audience to ask questions to three distinguished panelists.

The audience reflected on the evening.

This was a very interesting discussion about watercolor painting, paper, and preservation. I found myself irresistibly drawn to the conversation and desire to create using watercolors and quality materials. It was as if I responded to a sales pitch for the medium. I then realized there was no sale, but a passionate exchange between people sharing mutual affection for their subject.

Joesph Whalen, an artist and educator who lives in Lockport started drawing at an early age while in the hospital. By the time he was in his teens, Joe knew he wanted to be a painter. He went to Rochester Institute of Technology and continued his scholarship at the Albright Art School and at Buffalo State. Joe received a Gold medal from the Buffalo Artist Society and was the founder of the Frontier Watercolor Society.

Although I learned a lot about watercolors and how to preserve them, I found the most memorable part of the evening to be Joe Whalen. He made a lot of jokes, many pertaining to watercolor, but the part that stuck in my head was when he was asked if he feels emotional knowing that his watercolor paintings will age. His response was one that I will not forget. Although it did not have to do with the watercolor in particular, it did have to do with his mentality on life. Without a mentality such as Joe's, I feel that you do not live life to its fullest, and therefore not the best artist you can be. He is not worried whether or not his paintings will last; he is worried about the process of making it. Joe's answer to the question was that people who are constantly worrying about every little aspect of their lives are uptight and boring people. That is the message I took home with me.

Joe: “Oils are stiff ol’ Republicans” Audience laughs

Joe: “Sorry, I’m getting all emotional”

Joe’s story about the sable brushes, the long tale he told his student about the sable—a small minx like creature—that lived in Finland and would go to Russia at night so the shearers dug a ditch and took hairs from their belly. What a character to know. I believe students who had Joe as a teacher were lucky indeed.

In terms of the content of the discussion, Mr. Whalen cleverly summed up painting with watercolor. To paraphrase his comment, “Watercolor says, ‘just try to do it – and see what I’m going to do to you.” That is watercolor in a nutshell. It’s a beautiful medium, but its beauty comes from letting it do its own thing.” Mr. Whalen’s wit made the roundtable discussion thoroughly enjoyable.

Joe: “I get asked all the time, how do you get that color? Dirty water.”

Joe on Ellen Steinfeld’s works: “Her work is so juicy”

Rebecca Pollak is a student in the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State and received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an emphasis in drawing and critical studies. She has diverse experiences receiving numerous internships ranging from a Paper Conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Photo Conservation at the Museum of Modern Art and a Natural Science Collections Conservation internship at the American Museum of Natural History. Rebecca has presented workshops in association with Kremer pigments, a watercolor preparation for artists and conservators, and lectured on making your own oil and water based media.

I found the combined knowledge shared of artist and conservator helped to create a multifaceted window that I now view watercolors through. Judy Walsh’s knowledge on light-fast paint paired with Joe Whalen’s timeless experience of painting with watercolor, really demonstrated how complex and in a sense, fragile, watercolors can be. Although it wasn’t discussed at great lengths, I would love to know more about Rebecca Pollack’s time at Kremer Pigments. The idea of developing historical colors, pigments and specific hues intrigued me; I would be interested in seeing how closely matched to perfect some of the colors are.

Enjoyed learning about the ways to protect watercolor paintings by using different types of glass frames. Lightfast ratings were really interesting to learn and how resistant different brands and pigments are when they are exposed to light. As a learning painter, I never really knew or checked the different paints that I buy to see how resistant they are to exposure of light. I thought the discussion was really helpful as an artist and art teacher because I was able to learn more about watercolor, and art conservation which I don't know much about. My favorite quote from Judy Walsh was that "conservators want the work to look cherished not new". That was a beautiful statement about the job they do.

Judith Walsh is a Professor of Paper Conservation at Buffalo State in the Art Conservation Department. She earned her M.A. from Cooperstown Graduate Programs and a B.A. at Trinity College in Washington D.C. Judy experience is wide ranging from being the Senior Paper Conservator at the national Gallery of Art, a Freelance Conservator of prints and drawings in Portland, Maine, and a Paper Conservator at Worcester Art Museum. She has instructed curatorial care of works of art on paper and repairs of tears and losses in paper at the Campbell Center for Preservation Studies in Mt Carroll, Illinois. Judy has written numerous publications; “Such Sublime Watercolors: A Technical Comparison of Works by Turner and Moran” J.M.W. Turner: “That Greatest of Landscape Painters” Watercolors from London Museums.Richard P Townsend, "Some Observations on the Watercolor Techniques of Homer and Sargent," American Tradition in Watercolor: The Worcester Art Museum Collection, Susan Strickler, "A Summer's Pleasure: Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine by Winslow Homer" The American Art Journal, "Innovation in Homer's Late Watercolors", Nicolai Cikovski and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, “The Language of Flowers in 19th Century American Painting” and “The Language of Flowers and other Floral Imagery used by Winslow Homer” Antiques.

Joe: “Watercolors defy dry-cleaning”

Judith: “That’s why we wear black”

The lecture was a wonderful play of personalities as well as the different views of watercolor aging between conservationists and artist. One refreshing point came from Professor Judy Walsh on the goal of a conservator. Their goal is not to change the work to brand new but rather just clean it up and preserve. Her statement came in the form of an amazing metaphor, “You want Tina Turner, not Cher."

Judith: “When we’re done treating a piece of work, we want Tina Turner, not Cher.

We want the best legs a 65 year old could have!”

She then explained that she meant that conservationists want things to look 'good for their age' but not fake like they had had too much plastic surgery done. She also described this theory in a way saying that they wanted things to look "cherished, but not brand new." This means that they have been well taken care of, but still show their importance and worth through revealing their age and their historic qualities.

I did not realize that certain glass was UV protecting so the test that Judy explained (getting plexi-glass and putting a cloth under it and testing with a black light to see if one side glowed and the other did not) was absolutely fascinating to me. It astounds me the technologies and resources we have available to help sustain our work.

I thought the Burchfield Penney’s first round table went rather well. The presentation was very well rounded due to the fact the entire spectrum of watercolor conservation was covered between the three guests. This was the most enjoyable part.

Judith: “Didn’t they make paper from Mummies?

Joe: “You’ve got to leave the mummies alone.”


Kathy Gaye Shiroki is the Curator of Museum Learning and Community Engagement at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and Lecturer in the Art Education Department at Buffalo State.