ECPN Interview: Textiles with Kris Cnossen

By Kaeley Ferguson posted 12-13-2021 11:41


The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a diverse series of Specialty Group Interviews  to promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training. The first installment of this series began with East Asian Art in 2016. Installments continued with AIC's Electronic Media Group (EMG) in 2017, Wooden Artifact Group (WAG) in 2018, Libraries and Archives in 2019, Photographic Materials Group (PMG) and Architecture Specialty Group (ASG) in 2020. 

We are currently interviewing conservation professionals from AIC's Textile Specialty Group (TSG). We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths. We hope this information will inspire emerging conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

For our third interview from the Textile Specialty Group series we introduce Kris Cnossen (@Kris Cnossen, a third-year graduate student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. 

Kris Cnossen with Ann Plato’s Needlework in its custom-made box
Kris Cnossen with Ann Plato’s Needlework in its custom-made box [Image courtesy of Evan Krape]

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Well, my name is Kris Cnossen, I use they/them pronouns, and I am a third-year graduate student at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). I am specializing in Textiles with a focus in Modern and Contemporary art and materials. During our third years at WUDPAC we find what is called our “third year placement,” which essentially means that we spend our third year of school in an internship position at another institution. I am currently working under Amanda Holden, the Textile and Costume Conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.

My interests include outreach, collaboration, discussions of ethics within conservation and documentation, and exploring how systems of hierarchical power can be dismantled and successfully rebuilt into more accountable structures. In my spare time I knit, re-watch Schitt’s Creek, read YA fantasy, explore nature, and drink far too much coffee.

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

I was introduced to conservation during my junior year of undergrad and from there it was a slow pursuit. There weren’t any conservators at my undergrad nor where my parents lived in West Michigan; this made it difficult to find opportunities. My first internship was the year after I graduated and after that I was always desperately searching for my next internship and saving for the inevitable move/s. Sometimes it’s a slow process, but I would remind anyone pursuing this to continue living your life while you do it. You’re not missing out on anything; you’re just on your own journey.

Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue textile conservation?

I decided to specialize in textiles because of the stories behind them. Everyone has access to textiles and many people can make them without “formal” training. This is especially true of historically oppressed communities; one example being the AIDS Quilt, which was and continues to be a powerful expression of pain, community, and love.

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

My training started as a child at the sewing machine with my mother. There, I sat with my bare feet on the cement floor, watching my mother feed fabric through the table-top sewing machine. I learned how to crochet, knit, sew, and read a pattern from my mother. She made my costumes for Halloween and theater. These are incredibly precious memories for me.

When I went to college, I believed all these skills to be hobbies, but the love of crafting - for problem solving using the tools in front of you - directed me to conservation. After learning about conservation late in my undergrad, I first interned at the Maryland Center for History and Culture (formally Maryland Historical Society) in their Fashion Preservation summer internship. I moved to Denver, CO for my next internship at the private lab owned by Paulette Reading. For the next year and a half I would split my time between the labs of Paulette, Judith Greenfield, and Cynthia Lawrence who are all a part of a consortium called Mountain States Art Conservation. My next internship was as an Outdoor Sculpture Intern at the Toledo Museum of Art, which led into another year as their Emergency Procedures Intern. Simultaneously, I continued crafting, taking jewelry making and blacksmithing classes.

Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

I’m not sure I can truly speak to this as I believe that there are many skills that are useful in conservation, and we all bring our own strengths to the field. Probably, quite simply, the ability and desire to stitch by hand for hours.

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

Currently, I am working on two main projects: researching the suitability of digitally printed reproduction fabric for loss compensation and assisting in the Anoxic Case Study for the Sustainability Tools for Conservation and Cultural Heritage (STiCH) project in collaboration with the Foundation for the American Institute of Conservation (FAIC).

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

There is so much research needed in textile conservation. Wet cleaning is a big one, and understanding the deterioration, treatment, and preservation of synthetic fibers is another. There is a large need for research in textile conservation, as well as people who can find the funding for it. 

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

I know this sounds like something that doesn’t need to be said, but it was a bit of a mantra for me; this is going to take time, so have fun while you’re doing it.

What is your favorite textile that you’ve worked on/treated?  

I think that would have to be Needlework Picture by Ann Plato, which is a silk needlework on an open plain-weave fabric (see image at top of page). Ann Plato was a writer and schoolteacher. She was the second African American woman to publish in the United States. This needlework, acquired by the Winterthur Museum, Library & Gardens in 2018, is crucial because it is the only needlework created by Plato that is held in an institution.

Collaboration and fruitful conversations with the curator of textiles at Winterthur, Dr. Laura Johnson, lead to in-depth ethical questions. One such question involved finding the balance between upholding the aesthetic integrity of the needlework and the importance of gaining as much research value as possible through one of the few extant pieces of tangible heritage from Ann Plato. In the end, we decided that I would take a less aesthetic approach, and instead, Dr. Johnson would ensure that the aesthetic value and subsequent life of the needlework would be represented through display, curation, and description.

Fellows are an incredible resource of potential and time. I spent a hundred – maybe more – hours with Plato’s needlework. This allowed the needlework to get the attention and care it deserved. I thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration the treatment required, and now the needlework can safely be displayed and researched, as it could not have been before. This, in my opinion, is when a conservator does their best work; with collaboration and access in mind.

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