A chat with Owens Art Gallery intern Bex Steinberg

The Art Conservation Lab intern talks current work, Colville, and the importance of art conservation

Think of your favorite painting. What about its creation comes to mind? Maybe you imagine a painstaking process of tiny brushstrokes and glazing, the story of the work ending once the paint dries. And then it stays that way forever. Of course, this is just a part of a much larger story, one that people like Mt. A student Bex Steinberg help contribute to. As a conservation lab intern at the Owens Art Gallery, Steinberg is currently gaining hands-on experience in preserving and maintaining art pieces after they are created, preserving history with the techniques of the present. Their work is a unique one: to be invisible.

Change is inevitable. Even many of our favourite artworks are subject to the ravages of time. As Steinberg says, “We have all of these paintings from the past. […] Over time they get covered in grime, the varnish yellows. It’s really art conservation people who make it visible for current generations to enjoy.” 

A hidden community is how they describe art conservatorship. Some of the biggest names, like, “Van Gogh or Rembrandt — all these paintings that you see have passed through the hands of people who restored them to their former splendor.” 

At the gallery, Steinberg is one of two art interns along with third-year student Suhjung Chun. The two assist the current Fine Arts conservator Jane Tisdale, along with the rest of the Owens team, on many projects, usually surrounding the sustainable display of returning exhibitions. “[Suhjung]’s absolutely brilliant, super fun to work with!” Steinberg says. The two approach the work from different angles: “It’s interesting working with Suhjung because she comes from the chemistry perspective and I come from the Fine Arts perspective, so between the two of us we can kind of come at things from all angles.” 

Currently, Steinberg is helping restore the frame of the first Mt. A president’s portrait. As they describe it, the team is “currently piecing it back together, bit by bit.” The process involves manipulating wood putty in the shape of the damaged area of the frame, then “[carving] it into the shape of the little piece of gilding.” Steinberg described that they then “painted it to make it match the rest of the frame, and that process was so fun, with the color matching and the sculpting.” 

Through the internship, Bex has gained a heightened understanding and experience with the works of artists such as Alex Colville,  the Canadian printmaker and prolific painter whose works are deeply tied to Mt. A. Steinberg described their surprise at learning of his worldly success. Colville’s works, as Steinberg describes them, “tend to be brought to display quite often, because he’s such a central part of the Owens.” Mt. A’s Tweedie Hall, located in the Wallace McCain Student Center, also features an impressive wall mural by Colville.

As for the future, Steinberg isn’t sure where their career will take them. “I have a minor in classics and I’m majoring in Fine Arts […] I want to do something at the intersection of them and I feel like art conservation kind of plays very strongly in that. I don’t know if I want to do art conservation for the rest of my life yet, but in the meantime I’m just really excited to kind of collect as many skills as I can.”

Until then, their work at Owens is certainly leading to incredible things. To learn more about the gallery and its conservation efforts, visit https://owensartgallery.com/collection/conservation/ or check out the gallery in person at 61 York Street in Sackville, NB.

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