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Antoinette Dwan: A servant to beauty

Sunday, January 27th, 2013 | Posted by

Art conservationist Antoinette Dwan practices her skills in repairing a piece of artwork that she owns in her Sebastopol studio, on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Antoinette Dwan lives her life as a servant to beauty. In her early 60s, she works as a paper conservator, a fairly rare profession.

That means she keeps alive old prints, etchings and paintings on paper, such as watercolors. She also authenticates and evaluates works on paper.

Her Sebastopol laboratory studio is a fascinating place. The brightly lit room holds all kinds of special equipment: microscope, brushes, various special lights, shelves of chemicals, a table that creates a vacuum around a work of art and wide metal cabinets that hold her many projects.

Opening a drawer, she reveals a print from 1508 in the process of being restored. In another drawer, she has a Magritte gouache painting.

“Someone used an adhesive when framing it long ago, and it is discoloring the painting,” she says. “I’ll use a scalpel for days to remove it flake by flake. It’s tedious work, but I am working with beautiful things.”

In a few weeks she will fly to Washington, D.C., to conduct a workshop with three graduate students at the National Gallery. It took a lot of work to acquire her unusual skills.

Dwan’s first degree was in English literature, but went to work at a place that made paper for conservators and archival purposes. Fascinated by the field, she went back to school to study art history and chemistry.

“After that, I went to Delaware to study conservation at the University of Delaware’s Winterthur program and got my MS degree there,” she says.

A pencil drawing by the artist Gericault from the 1820s is shown before, top, and after it was restored by Antoinette Dwan.

“There are just three schools that have such a program. The others are in Buffalo and at New York University, and they each take just 10 students a year. If you want to conserve something, make sure it’s done by a graduate of one of those programs.”

After completing the program she worked at the National Gallery on a Mellon Fellowship, then went to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.

“The work takes dedication to detail, but even more it requires judgment, training and experience,” she explains. “It’s important to move slowly, gently and remain in control. Finesse rather than crudity counts.”

She lives with each project, taking it out, thinking about it, putting it away and taking it out again until she designs a plan of action.

“I get to know each piece intimately.”

Originally from California, she met and married Gene Cooley, a botanist who also is a Californian. When her children Evan and Camille were born, she left her job to take on private clients in her own studio-lab.

The kids are now in college, studying science and art history. The couple missed their home state, so when Cooley got a job with the California Department of Fish and Game, they moved to Sonoma County.

Dwan already had devoted clients, including an Old Masters gallery in New York. It didn’t take long for word to spread in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and clients began coming to her.

“I meet lovely people who love their art,” she says.

Dwan collects antique paper items to practice on and to keep as a library. “See the tears in this drawing?” she says. “I will find paper from the same period and use it to make matching paper and plug it in to mend the tears, piece by tiny piece so there is no seam, no way to tell it had to be added.”

She has worked on pieces by Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and other well-known artists, but asked if she has a favorite she sits back and thinks.

“No, I can’t say that. Any project leaves me equally exhausted,” she says. “And I get to know the work so well you could say I fall in love with it by the time I am done.

“Any work you do very seriously leaves you exhausted and excited, don’t you think?”


Advice from Antoinette Dwan
To protect your art on paper: never use self adhesives like scotch tape on the art. To mount them use a paste made of wheat starch (available at art supply stores) mixed with water or buy a paper tape from an art supplier that you then wet to activate a wheat paste glue. Always use archival quality mat board for framing.


Writer Spotlight

Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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