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Conservators who write fiction

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A group of students and teachers standing around a table, looking at diagrams and detail printouts of a painting that is placed nearby.

Students from the Two-week Introduction to Practical Conservation (TIP-C) program​ in June of 2018 with their supervisors discussing an oil painting by Jimmie Mosely; from left: Amanda Kasman (University of Delaware), Kiera Hammond (Howard University), Chanise Epps (Texas Southern University), Meaghan Hall (Fisk University), Kei Takahashi (Texas Southern University), Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner (University of Delaware), and Telvin Wallace (North Carolina Central University). Image courtesy of Evan Krape.​

Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner (WUDPAC Paintings Conservator; Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture; Director, UD Preservation Studies Doctoral Program)​ is featured in an IIC News article about conservators who express their creativity through books, plays, and musicals.​

From the August 23, 2021 article by Rebecca Rushfield:​

Some conservators have been writers for much of their lives. Paintings conservator Joyce Hill Stoner first started re-writing plays in the sixth grade and wrote her first musical in the eighth grade (March 4, 2021 email).  Paper conservator Lien Gyles loved to write stories when she was a child; she stopped in her teens but “kept them all swirling around in my head instead” (March 1, 2021 email).  Lucy Branch, principal at Antique Bronze Ltd., has been writing stories since she was about fourteen years old.  In an interview she noted, “I remember writing through my break-times at school and not being able to bear to stop” (Armstrong, 2015). Retired conservator of art on paper Christine Smith told me that, before she “entered the all-consuming life of graduate school and then a conservation career, I wrote literature and made collages” (February 20, 2021 email).  

Story telling is not the first thing one might associate with conservation, but deciding which moment in an object’s life to preserve is akin to choosing which story it will tell. While critics of certain restoration projects have accused conservators of “fictionalizing the past” (Hauenstein, 2019), storytelling can be seen as part of the conservation process. “Every artifact in a museum’s collection has a story to tell… A key decision conservators make early on in any project is which moment in the object’s story they want to preserve” (Mohaupt, 2017).  One of the questions Lucy Branch asks herself when restoring historic objects is “‘what is missing from this object? What can I not see?’ and ‘Why might evidence have been lost?’ It has made me very interested in what’s absent from history and why” (Armstrong, 2015).

Conservation work can be preparation for literary storytelling; this goes beyond conservators having to write many technical reports and grant proposals. Architectural conservator Amanda Stauffer has noted that, “Conservation requires you to have painstaking attention to detail. We document cracks no thicker than hairlines, a church ceiling might get painted a color based on microscopic analysis of a single paint chip the size of a splinter…” (Klepper,2018).  Lucy Branch noted that “conservation is quite forensic. We’re looking for clues. So it’s a tiny step from conservation to a murder mystery” (Telephone conversation March 9, 2021). Retired objects conservator Miriam Clavir expressed the same sentiments to me in a March 22, 2021 call, saying that during her working life she saw many things that would fit into a mystery including scalpels and chemicals, the natural history museum bug rooms, and the analytical techniques that can be used to solve mysteries. Thinking about other conservator-literary authors, Joyce Hill Stoner noted that those conservators, “know a great deal about something fairly arcane and that is fascinating to others, and they are able to turn it into great story telling” (March 4, 2021 email). . . .

Do conservator-literary authors think of their conservation and their writing as two equally important jobs? Or do they see writing as a respite from the pressures of their conservation “day jobs”—a term which implies that one’s passions lie elsewhere than in their everyday work (St. John Mandel, 2009). Joyce Hill Stoner “has basically done both [writing for the] theater and art conservation simultaneously” most of her working life (March 4, 2021 email). To her they are equal. 

For many, writing or story development is a respite from the tediousness of conservation work. Don Williams remembers working in the silver objects conservation lab at the Winterthur Museum, polishing and lacquering their monumental collections. “To amuse ourselves, my coworker Helen and I made up stories—or more precisely, story outlines.” (March 4, 2021 email).  Lucy Branch thinks about her stories when she is working on large, long term projects. For her, literary writing is an escape from the pressures of life. Her fiction is something that “takes her out of reality” (Telephone conversation, March 9, 2021). Lien Gyles expressed similar sentiments: “Writing is what keeps me sane; it de-stresses me, even if I only manage ten minutes a day” (Maver, 2018). . . .

Joyce Hill Stoner has expressed this concern that a conservator who is also a literary writer might be seen as less than serious about one’s conservation work: “As you don’t want to know your dentist tap dances, you don’t want to know your painting conservator writes musicals. So you just live two separate lives” (Stoner, 2019).   Perhaps as a means of keeping their lives separate, some conservators have written under pen names. Dr. Leslie Carlyle wrote as “Judy Lester”. Belgian-born Lien Gyles writes as “Lynn Maver,” a name she chose because she thought a more English name would fit better with the stories she writes (March 1, 2021 email).   We know the real identities of Lester and Maver. Could there be other conservator-literary authors writing under pseudonyms whose conservation identities are not yet know?​


To read the full article, visit the website of the International Insitute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. (A link to bonus content appears in the August-September IIC Newsletter.)

To see what Dr. Stoner has been working on lately, visit the website for the musical Shanghai Sonatas​.​

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WUDPAC Professor and PSP Director Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner is featured in an IIC News article about conservators who express their creativity through books, plays, and musicals.
9/15/2021
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