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Art conservation and preserving a ceramic puzzle

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During treatment, Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation Fellow Abigail Rodriguez examining sherds and creating fills for a ceramic jar, or olla, a piece of artist Lydia Quezada’s reduction-fired “three blacks” pottery. (Images: E. Krape and I. Messina.)

​​In 2017, a severely compromised contemporary Mexican ceramic jar that had broken into dozens of pieces was gifted to the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) for its study collection. This year when WUDPAC Fellow Abigail Rodriguez, an objects major and textiles minor with a strong interest in murals and architectural conservation, began treating the object, she was daunted and saddened by the amount of damage it had suffered. Yet she also liked artist Lydia Quezada’s (b. 1956) riff on traditional Mexican pottery and soon began to feel a connection to the artist’s process in creating the piece. She also felt cheered at the prospect of bringing it back to life.

The ceramic jar or olla is a piece of Quezada’s well-known “three blacks” pottery, in which the vessel is reduction fired after being hand-sanded, polished, and painted. The black surface of the earthenware object appears either smooth, glossy or flat, depending on the process used to finish and decorate it. On this olla, the interior and most of the exterior are smooth, while two large circular areas placed symmetrically on opposite sides of the body have been burnished to a high gloss. Matte lines and borders hand-painted atop the glossy areas form a design of spiraling curves and geometric shapes.

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Left: Before assembly, the ceramic sherds were laid out like a puzzle, with larger pieces in their relative positions. Right: The olla after treatment. (Images: A. Rodriguez.​)

Abby approached the olla like a puzzle and began by laying the many pieces side by side on a table. After fitting the pieces together, she used ParaloidTM B72, an easily reversable acrylic adhesive, to attach the pieces and reconstruct the olla. To avoid having to then tape the pieces in place until they dried because that could leave a residue on the surface, Abby instead anchored them in place by setting them in a “sandbox” she devised by filling a shoe box with glass beads. Her final step was to paint and tone about 15 small areas of loss she had filled with Flügger acrylic putty. After experimenting with paints and methods of application, she decided to use an airbrush to apply paint that would match the tone of the matte, flat, or glossy surface. To protect the surrounding areas, she applied plastic wrap so that her inpainting only covered filled sections. Abby hopes that once her treatment is complete, she can one day share her work with the artist.

​A printable PDF version of this story is available here. Previous stories on projects from the Department of Art Conservation are archived and available here.

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​A ceramic jar from artist Lydia Quezada’s well-known “three blacks” series recently became a treatment project for WUDPAC Fellow Abigail Rodriguez.​​
6/16/2021
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