Monica Smith

Emily Carr is one of Canada’s most celebrated artists. Her hand is immediately recognizable as she captures the spirit of B.C.’s forested landscape and our First Nations history. In 2013, Carr’s Crazy Stair painting fetched $3,393,000 at a Heffel Fine Art Auction.

“Careful, please.” “No photos.” You can understand why Carr’s paintings are treated with the utmost reverence as they travel to galleries in one continent to the next. However, if you pass through Reception, get your Security Clearance, head through the double doors, more doors, then down deep into the basement of the Vancouver Art Gallery, you might come upon a most startling site. There, sitting at an easel, is Monica Smith. With tiny brush in hand, she is painting on an Emily Carr painting. Painting on an Emily Carr painting.

In gawking, you’ll soon discover that this is no mad tagging. Smith is Head Conservator at the VAG and she is working meticulously on Carr’s Wood Interior, one tiny spot at a time. “There are two tiny losses on the surface and I’m in-painting it. We always use a special type of paint that is completely reversible. She painted in oil paint and I’m using an aldehyde paint resin, which comes off with mineral spirits. And I documented where the losses were. “

monica 3
Photo by Rachel Topham

Reversibility is one of the guiding principles for a conservator, says Smith. “You try as much as possible. It’s in case your pigments don’t age in the same way. That has happened in the past. You see old re-touches that show up over time.” These days, says Smith, “conservators are trained to do the minimum amount that is required to make a work stable or presentable.”

Smith plays an important role in the physical care of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s own collection. She is also involved in everything from storage to acquisitions, exhibitions to loans.

Smith found her way into the field via an interest in archeology. She started at UBC with an undergraduate degree in Classical Studies. “I studied mainly objects because I was interested in the ancient world.” She enjoyed working on archeological expeditions in Greece and a roman mosaic that happened to be housed in Hawaii.

Realizing that there was not going to be a lot of archeological work in Vancouver, Smith went off to Queens for her Masters of Art Conservation. “People come into this field with varied backgrounds,” says Smith. “I have a colleague whose background was in dentistry. You have to have the same common denominator – a couple of years of chemistry and an understanding of materials science.”

Vital personal qualities for the job are patience, attention to detail, a gentle touch and a love of objects. “You also need to be able to work with people.” When it comes time to consider the next art challenge, Smith emerges from the temperature-controlled basement with fellow conservator Sabina Sutherland to meet with curators, preparators, registrars, the artists themselves. “It’s a huge team.”

At times, Smith will be faced with highly specific challenges that require equally specific interventions. “I have a source of private specialists in Vancouver because I can’t do everything. Realizing one’s limitations is an important quality for an art conservator.” These might be specialists in textiles, works of art on paper, plastics…

“Often the contemporary works are much more complex. Many involve multiple components and different types of media that often fail and are problematic. The artists might use tar and sand, sparkles or plastics that deteriorate and get brittle or discoloured over time.”

Not surprisingly, many of the old artworks we admire today are remarkably hearty. “Most of the oil paintings of the past are very stable. They are now as if they were painted yesterday. The paper was good; the materials were traditional. It was traditional oil painting on a canvas with a ground layer.”

monica in lab

Before Smith and the team can display any art, they have to ensure that it is clean. If cleansing is needed, they might come at it with dry erasers, brushes or an aqueous method. They also concoct their secret conservator potions. “We make our own organic solutions.”

When the gallery is acquiring art, Smith has her eye out for critters. “We are looking for insects.” If the little troublemakers show themselves – more likely in textiles – they are frozen out in a walk-in freezer borrowed from the Vancouver Museum or the Museum or Anthropology. “For the Douglas Coupland exhibit, he had all these huge wasp nests, so we froze them all for him before he made them into sculptures. We weren’t worried about wasps, but there could have been beetles crawling out.”

In acquisitions, Smith might also be involved in verifying the provenance of an artwork. If there are questions, expert hands will extract samples for scientific analysis. The VAG team can also use UV and infrared to detect any tampering. “We can see if it’s been painted over or if there is a signature hidden below. Ultraviolet shows the surface; infrared shows us lower down, beneath the paint layers.”

Contemporary work poses all sorts of challenges for Smith in its installation. “Crazy unique materials you wouldn’t even think of.” Right now, as part of the Unscrolled show, the VAG rotunda features Jennifer Wen Ma’s Inked Chandelier, a five-tiered metal art piece featuring 750 plants covered in traditional black ink.

Works from other countries sometimes come with their own installation teams. Ai Weiwei’s most elaborate Bang with its 886 suspended wooden stools? “Five people came from China to install that. It took them about a week.”

With much of the borrowed work, however, Smith and her team are on the line. “There are very strict requirements between galleries. One thing we are always paranoid about here is earthquakes. The 3D objects have to be secured in their cases.”

For the Forbidden City exhibit, Smith and the team were overseeing three hermetically sealed cases. “One had a big metal disk, one a silver coffee set and the other had metal vases in it. We were required to maintain the humidity, temperature and light at certain levels. We have to make sure the contractual agreements are maintained.” To do so, they monitored data from hygrothermographs installed within the cases. “We put in silica gel, which is a dessicant, to keep them at a lower humidity than the gallery.”

Overseeing art loans is another colourful aspect of Smith’s job. “We lend work all the time. We have twenty four Emily Carrs at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and I went as a courier. So, you go to cargo with the plane to make sure it’s loaded properly and you oversee the unloading. You make sure the condition hasn’t changed because of the flight, then you have to make sure the art is hung safely and secured on the wall. It’s a five day process – very stressful.”

Knock on wood, Smith hasn’t had to deal with any major art catastrophes in her years on the job. There are the “scrapes, bumps and damages” that happen in transit or in the hanging. On occasion, she is faced with the work of vandals. “I have learned to be cautious, not to rush into things if something is damaged. We just stop everything, slow down, take photographs. One of the key skills is being able to slow down and assess the situation.”

“Some people describe our job as 95% boredom and 5% terror,” says Smith. She, however, relishes the learning and the challenge. “Every day is different: new problems, new materials.”

With all of her experience with art ancient and new, what advice would Smith offer? To art owners: avoid the sun. “Artwork in the sun is a big deal. When we loan paintings, we make very strict guidelines that there is to be no daylight period, let alone direct sun.”

And to artists? “Use good materials. Don’t use poor quality anything. It’s not worth it in the long run.”

full painting


Written by Elizabeth Newton





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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton