ECPN Interview: Wooden Artifacts Conservation with Paige Schmidt

By Awyn Rileybird posted 10-24-2018 16:55

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of pathways into specializations within conservation, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) has been conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in a variety of disciplines. We began the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation and continued the series by focusing on practitioners working with Electronic Media. In this interview series, we spoke with members of AIC’s Wooden Artifact Group (WAG). These conservators work with various wooden objects, which can range from furniture, musical instruments, waterlogged wood, frames, and more. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, hoping to inspire new conservation professionals and provide insights into these specialized areas.

For this second interview in our WAG interview series, we spoke with @Paige Schmidt who holds an M.A. and C.A.S. in Conservation from SUNY Buffalo State. Paige is an Assistant Objects Conservator at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia.

Paige Schmidt, with Pilot House chair and Lighter Model (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park)
Paige Schmidt, with Pilot House chair and Lighter Model. 
[Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park]

ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Paige Schmidt (PS): I am from the Pacific Northwest and lived and worked on a wooden power boat for a year after college. Being outdoors and being on the water are integral to my happiness, so it is a dream come true to have a job that encompasses my passion for conservation, history, wooden artifacts, and my love of all things maritime. I enjoy working with wood, and taking on projects that involve learning new skills or some new facet of the natural world and the fundamental laws of nature that guide and dictate everything around us.

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

PS: I was fortunate to grow up in a family that considered places like Gettysburg, the Smithsonian museums, and the Kennedy Space Center as vacation destinations. I was instilled with a deeply embedded appreciation for history and the preciousness and importance of the physical objects that act as empirical signposts of our progenitors. I knew at a very young age that someone must be taking care of these objects, and while it wasn’t until later that I put a name to the profession, I knew that I wanted to be that person. I found conservation when I explored career options at the beginning of college, and as I was struggling between pursuing coursework in science or history, the profession of art conservation became a no-brainer. As I think many conservators do, I felt incredibly relieved to find a profession that incorporates science, history, and working with my hands. I also felt that given my particular strengths within these three fields, I would be successful at it.  

During treatment, lid of WWI U.S. Navy Sea Chest (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park)

During treatment, lid of WWI U.S. Navy Sea Chest. 
Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park]

ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue wooden artifact conservation?

PS: My first introduction to working with wooden artifacts within conservation was as a pre-program intern at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, primarily working on furniture and frames. While I have always dreamed of working with a maritime collection, I was very interested in the unique challenges of working for historic house museums, as well as engaging with the ongoing conversations about the conservation of mechanical and ‘functional’ artifacts. These objects, like boats and automobiles, are often restored and/or worked on by skilled crafts and tradespeople who are experts on these artifacts’ technical use-life. I’m very interested in the intersection of restoration and conservation regarding these types of objects, and how conservation can be of service to these types of collections. And I’m simply a “woodhead” at heart; from living trees to carefully carved ornamentation, I find the dynamic nature of wood irresistible. All of these things led me to pursue an education in objects conservation, with a focus on wooden artifacts.

Paige Schmidt, treating 19th century pilot house chair (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park)
Paige Schmidt, treating 19th century pilot house chair. 
[Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park]

ECPN: What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

PS: I received my undergraduate degree with honors in Art History from the University of Washington in Seattle. I have worked with various three-dimensional art forms, including woodworking, which has become a personal passion. I am mechanically inclined, and enjoy taking on projects that incorporate modern and traditional technologies, such as building a small electric kiln. I purchased a broken down wooden power boat when I was 23 and got the engine running. I worked on the electrical system, in addition to repairing rotted sections of wood and constantly dealing with mold mitigation. I believe these types of experiences lent themselves well to my particular path within conservation.

My first pre-program internships were with painting conservators in private practice labs in Seattle, WA, and Orlando, FL. I then worked at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for nearly two years, where I was brought on to work on a historic interior, and then proceeded to work in the Objects, Archaeological Materials, Paper, and Wooden Artifacts labs. I cannot express enough how appreciative I am to have entered graduate school with a diverse exposure to the sub-specialties within conservation. I use the knowledge I gained from working with paper and paintings conservators regularly and consider those experiences invaluable and integral to my success as an objects and wooden artifacts conservator.

I attended SUNY Buffalo State’s Master’s Program in Art Conservation, specializing in objects conservation. I worked on a wide range of material types while at school, and spent my first summer interning at two archaeological conservation labs in Europe. While I have always had a predilection for wooden artifacts, I chose to gain exposure to as many different materials as possible while at school. I would describe my training pathway as one in which wooden artifacts was the consistent vein I followed, but I was always open to a diversity of experiences that would prepare me for a variety of job paths. I spent my second summer working at the Frick Collection in NYC, working both with furniture and objects. I completed my third-year internship at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, primarily working on furniture and upholstery. But, I also worked with outdoor sculpture and decorative arts objects.

In addition to my formal training, I am an active member of the AIC’s Wooden Artifacts Group (WAG), which has been a great way to meet experts in the field and stay abreast of and engaged  with conversations happening in the wooden artifacts community. I recently completed terms as the WAG-ECPN liaison and as a member of the WAG Advisory Committee, and was the WAG 2018 Program Chair for the AIC Annual meeting in Houston. I’ve recently turned my sights a little more local, and am currently serving on the board for the Virginia Conservation Association.

Before treatment, Globuloid Naval Battery Model (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park)

Before treatment, Globuloid Naval Battery Model.
[Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park]

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline? Can one solely be a ‘wooden artifact conservator,’ or is knowledge of composites and how to treat other materials inherent to the work?

PS: Wooden artifacts are often composites, which is one reason why I think conservators who primarily work with wooden artifacts are often even more specifically categorized, such as furniture conservators or frame conservators. Each facet of wooden artifact conservation comes with its ‘usual suspects’ of secondary or tertiary materials, all of which conservators must be prepared to treat as well. That is one reason why I was particularly interested in working with furniture; there may be a wooden carcass or veneer, but there are no-holds-barred when it comes to what else might be present, including leather, metal alloys, shell, glass, natural and synthetic fibers, plastics, composition, gold leaf, etc. And that’s before you consider the number of materials that might be present within coatings and painted surfaces.

ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

PS: I started working at The Mariners’ Museum and Park about one year ago, and recently finished working on treatments for a WWI exhibition and an event that featured international artifacts from the collection. A particularly interesting project was the treatment and analysis of the billethead (a non-figural alternative to a figurehead) from the USS Saratoga, which was Commodore Perry’s ship in the mid-19th century. In addition to the already completed treatment (mostly cleaning and fill work), I am currently analyzing the surface decoration, which I believe was originally gilded.

I regularly work with composite wooden artifacts, including sea chests, furniture, tools, and models, but I am also regularly presented with other materials, including scrimshaw, baleen, plastics, and textiles. My experience and specialized training with wooden artifacts equipped me for the unique challenges and truly diverse range of wooden artifacts within the collection, but my broad education in objects conservation has prepared me for the encyclopedic nature of the materials within the collection, as well. I’m still getting my ‘sea legs,’ as it were, as I learn about the museum, the collection, and the conservation department. But looking ahead, I’m probably most excited to work on some of our watercraft. The Mariners’ Museum and Park houses over 150 small craft, representing 42 countries.

Paige Schmidt, with WWI U.S. Navy Sea Chest (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park)
Before treatment, Globuloid Naval Battery Model.
[Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park]

ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

PS: I believe we could use more publications on bulked epoxies for wooden artifact fills. Many of the commercially available products published in go-to wooden artifact conservation references are no longer available. There are great resources out there for learning about the characteristics of various epoxy systems and bulking agents, and I believe we can not only reproduce the characteristics of the commercially available products we loved, but also take this opportunity to better understand and take advantage of the achievable nuances within epoxy systems to better suit the case by case needs of an artifact.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

PS: Being fresh out of school myself, and already feeling like I can look back on the many years of experiences that have gotten me this far (which is really just the beginning!), I would say don’t get discouraged by the time you have to put into preparing for graduate training. Work your angles, but don’t feel bad or like you are moving backwards if you occasionally have to take a beat to recuperate financially, or if you need to say ‘no’ to something you can’t afford and wait for a more feasible opportunity. In those moments or periods of time in which you might not think you are directly engaging with the ‘conservation world’ or adding the ‘right’ kind of experiences to your resume, think about ways in which you can continue to better your hand skills and general knowledge, whether it be investing in a chip knife and some cheap wood from a craft store, or participating in a free course on trees at the local library or arboretum- it all adds up, it all matters, it all makes you better. Wooden artifact conservation applies to a diverse range of collections, so don’t box yourself in by thinking you have to be working on Boulle or Gibbons right away to find a place in this field!  

ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.

PS: I always hoped to find a way back to the water and to a maritime collection, and I believe that by continually challenging myself to take on personal projects and bettering my skills as a woodworker, in addition to keeping an open mind about the broad applicability and interconnectedness of every experience, I was prepared when the opportunity presented itself. If you have a specific focus you already have your sights set on (specifically working on 18th c. furniture, for example), go for it, but I truly think that embracing the natural ebb and flow of opportunities and the interdisciplinary nature of conservation will poise you for success.

After treatment, USS Saratoga Billethead (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park)

After treatment, USS Saratoga Billethead.
[Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park]

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