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News Student Blog: Smithsonian's Lunder Conservation Center

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​I am a millennial, but I never would have guessed that Twitter would be the key to solving the biggest mystery of my summer research project: Who is the man at the center of Historical Scene (1967.59.646)? This research project on paintings by William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) was the focus of my summer internship hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and overseen by three WUDPAC alums: Amber Kerr (WUDPAC 2008), Gwen Manthey (WUDPAC 2011), and Keara Teeter (WUDPAC 2019). Through this internship, I was honored to contribute to an upcoming traveling exhibition that was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the delay, I believe the exhibition is more relevant because it embodies powerful themes of African-American empowerment that parallel the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in May of 2020. Although my internship and other professional development activities were completed almost entirely on my computer, I was granted access to Winterthur's paintings studio for five days and the Lunder Center for three days at the very end of my time in Washington DC, for which I am so grateful! I was also fortunate to receive funding from the Kress Foundation to support my summer where ever the repercussions of the coronavirus took me. There were moments this summer that felt bleak in light of world events, but my research and outreach related to the inclusion of minorities and underrepresented groups gave me hope for a brighter future which I would like to share.

​Left: Winterthur/University of Delaware Class of 2021 Fellow Amanda Kasman inpainting Historical Scene (1967.59.646) in the Smithsonian’s Lunder Conservation Center during her first day on-site on September 5th. Right: Historical Scene (1967.59.646), left, shown before treatment, had no title or marks to relate the figures to Father Divine, but fate (and Twitter) had other plans. I then discovered the archival video, represented by two screen captures, on the right. The top right image shows Father Divine, and the bottom right image shows his crowds of adoring, mostly-female fans.

​My internship at SAAM started in June and focused on the first complete exhibition of William Henry Johnson's Fighters for Freedom paintings since the 1940s. Johnson, an African-American artist, helped to define black visual imagery in the mid-twentieth century with his radical folk-style paintings of Southern black culture. The Fighters for Freedom series, completed between 1945-47, highlights key events and heroes of African-American history. My first task related to the Johnson exhibition was to research Johnson's imagery and identify the historic photographs, magazine articles, and book engravings that Johnson likely referenced. Completing visual analysis reports for 27 of the 29 paintings in the exhibit vastly improved my knowledge of African-American history and made it exciting to log into work each morning. But regarding the mystery: there was one painting with no title or identifying markings. The figures and buildings in the painting were unknown, and at the bottom of the painting was a depiction of the British colonial flag of Tuvalu. For weeks I was baffled. Then, on a lunch break, I fell down one of those internet rabbit holes that are so often lucrative for art conservators. I found a New York Times article which lead to a Twitter account, which led to a clip of archival video footage. The clip showed an African-American man in a fine suit preaching before a cheering crowd of women, and I thought, "that's HIM!" Amazed at my luck, I did more research and completed a report proposing that the painting depicts 1940s religious prophet, cult leader, and legend, Father Divine. I would also get to work with this painting hands-on at the Lunder Center, covered later in this blog post.

​Left: ACP1740 Still Life with Flowers before treatment (left) and after treatment (right). I completed the inpainting in my apartment during COVID-19 quarantine, but the after-treatment photography was completed at Winterthur in June. Right: ACP1722 Flemish Landscape with a Biblical Scene after filling but before inpainting (left) and after treatment (right). I was able to complete the inpainting at Winterthur in this case, but my classmate and I social-distanced and wore masks, as seen below.

​While I was pouring through archives during the week, I arranged to spend weekends back at Winterthur Museum to complete my second-year painting treatments. For five days in June and July – with preapproval, masks, social distancing, and strict cleanliness protocols – I got back to work where I had left off in March. This involved taking after treatment photographs of Still Life with Flowers, which I had inpainted in my apartment during quarantine. I also needed to complete the inpainting of a 16th century Flemish Landscape on panel. This last treatment was completed in July, nearly two months after my second-year ought to have ended, so I hadn't anticipated the emotional impact of walking out of the research building that day. But Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner reminded me of all of the paintings I had treated in that studio over the last four years since my time as a pre-program intern, and suddenly I didn't want to leave. I am more excited than I can say about my third-year at Yale but I know that Winterthur will always be my home, and I cannot wait to return. 

​Amanda in the Winterthur Paintings Conservation Studio in July 2020, social distancing with classmate Isaac Messina, as she finished inpainting ACP1722 Flemish Landscape with a Biblical.

​On July 29th, I presented at my second conference; however, I did not get to share the podium with my co-presenter LaStarsha McGarity, the current Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation at the National Gallery of Art. Instead we shared an apartment in Washington D.C. from which we called into the virtual conference platform. Back in January, when LaStarsha and I were planning the presentation and buying plane tickets, neither of us could have foreseen that we would move in together during a pandemic lock-down, or that I would get to know her precious little dog, Sweets Serendipity! Thankfully the technology worked perfectly for our conference session, and we believe the digital format enabled more people to watch than would have been possible in a typical conference setting. The recording is now available on the AIC website

The second part of my William Henry Johnson research project was generating IR and UV false color maps from the multispectral imaging done on the Fighters for Freedom paintings. I was thrilled at the opportunity to improve my editing and analysis skills while awaiting permission to work in the Lunder Center in-person. Acquiring the software and getting access to remote desktops both at the University of Delaware and the Smithsonian turned out to be a logistical challenge (UD VPN > UD VMware Graphics Intensive Desktop > UD Photoshop Account > Smithsonian Two Factor Authentication > Smithsonian Remote Desktop etc.) but I eventually got a hang of the workflow, and the results of the false color analysis were much more conclusive than I had anticipated. In my report, I proposed Johnson's paint palette based on background knowledge of the artist's timeline and previously conducted XRF analysis. The results indicated the presence of phthalo blue, cadmium red, chrome yellow, synthetic ultramarine, and possibly thioindigo red. Please see examples of the false color results below.

Women Builders (1967.59.1150), top row, and Booker T. Washington Revelation (1967.59.1143), bottom row, in false color UV (left column), normal light (middle column), and false color IR (right column). Note that the phthalo blue added to Booker T Washington’s lips in the bottom painting makes then appear bright red in the false color IR map while they hardly stand out in the normal light image. 

​Then on September 4th, thanks to the determination and ingenuity of  my supervisors, I was able to enter the museum before the official reopening! Overseen by paintings conservator Gwen Manthey, I began inpainting the work (so close to my heart) that I know believe depicts Father Divine. We also dusted the galleries, although the lack of visitors meant the overhead lights were turned off and comparatively little dust had accumulated since February. Nevertheless, I was delighted to have that time to connect with and contemplate each of the paintings after being locked out for so long.

​Amanda dusting Sob, Sob by Kerry James Marshall in the galleries of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the absence of visitors or overhead lighting. Image courtesy of Gwen Manthey.

​At a time when terror and violence seem to be surrounding all of us, but particularly people of color, the William Henry Johnson exhibition gives me hope. This is because the exhibition is being developed by America's largest museum institution in order to travel across the country raising awareness for an underrepresented African-American artist and more broadly black pride! As I look forward to my work at my third-year internship at the Yale University Art Gallery, I hope that I am able to maintain the connections that I built at the Smithsonian this summer and can continue to engage with William Henry Johnson's life and work. I eagerly await the exhibition's opening currently planned for 2022 as well as a time when we can safely gather again. Take care, everyone.

— Amanda Kasman, WUDPAC Class of 2021

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2021 Fellow Amanda Kasman shares her internship experience at the Lunder Conservation Center working with the paintings of William Henry Johnson from the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2021 Fellow Amanda Kasman shares her internship experience at the Lunder Conservation Center working with the paintings of William Henry Johnson from the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489