Elly Stewart: Art conservator and human storyteller

When you can specialize in conserving paintings, prints or paper, why choose objects? Art history major Elly Stewart says it’s because of the human touch. “When you preserve an object, you preserve the human history behind it, too,” she said.

Stewart grew up in Tulsa but moved to Colorado after graduating from Jenks High School in 2009. She worked as a photographer for almost seven years before wanting a change. “I was working in adventure sports and it’s a very competitive field,” she said. “Conservation is actually probably more competitive, as hard as that is to believe, but I love the field.”

Before and After of Silver Conserved by Elly Stewart
Click to see the before and after of Stewart’s conservation.

While taking classes at a community college in Colorado, Stewart enrolled in an art history course and knew immediately it would be her longtime career. It was during a trip to the Michael C. Carlos Museum on Emory University’s campus that she took her first step into conservation. She ran into a conservator in one of the galleries and struck up a conversation with her about her work and educational background. “In the moment I was like, ‘You get to touch these things!?,’” Stewart said. “I went home and watched every video I could find on conservation for the next three days.”

The Art of Conservation

Stewart quickly discovered the value of art conservation and how it differs from restoration. Art conservators stabilize a piece to slow the aging process, but they leave the item intact to preserve the impact of human history and show how it has been used. Conservators use materials that can be removed with water or other organic solvents so that 100% of their work is reversible in the future as technologies advance. Restoration implies that the objects are being returned to like-new condition, which disregards — or in some cases, even erases the history — of the object. “In conservation, we strive to conserve the current state of the object for future generations while preserving its journey through history,” Stewart said. Most of the objects she works with are utilitarian and have natural wear and tear that comes along with actual use by the cultures that created them. “By restoring an object, you lose the understanding that the object was made by people, for people and not just to be a museum object,” she said.

Maria Maurer, associate professor of art history at The University of Tulsa, explains that like anything else, art ages. Many objects in museums are thousands of years old. Paint fades and flakes off, ceramics chip and more delicate materials like textiles or feather work decay. “Without the important work of conservators, much of the art we love would literally wear away, and the work we are creating today might not be around for future generations,” Maurer said.

Elly Stewart Cleaning Silver

Launching into a New Field

At this point, Stewart’s curiosity was more than passing interest, so she moved back to Tulsa, applied and was accepted to TU, and is now majoring in art history with a minor in fine arts. She started working at Gilcrease Museum about two years ago and was the only undergraduate student selected from a pool of many applicants for an internship at the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this summer.

A highlight from her internship was working with distinguished pieces like Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Each year, the Cleveland Museum of Art assesses all the sculptures on their grounds. Any needed cleaning and treatments are then conducted, which was the case with this sculpture. The casting was from the 1880s and had been blown up by Vietnam War protesters in 1970. “The museum decided to leave the sculpture the way it was destroyed,” Stewart said. “It looks like this big, blown up kind of Marilyn Monroe skirt.”

This particular Thinker is unique in that it was one of the last pieces cast in Rodin’s lifetime. Stewart power washed it and then scrubbed the sculpture with different kinds of soaps. “It’s amazing the museum decided to leave the bombing damage and have that be a part of the history. And that’s what art conservation is all about. It’s a different approach than art restoration,” Stewart said.

Tulsa’s Museum

The distinction between conservation and restoration was clear during her time at Gilcrease, too, as the museum only conserves pieces. “Gilcrease has been instrumental in getting my feet wet in objects work and research,” Stewart said. One of her mentors at Gilcrease is Joanna Didik, chief conservator at the Helmerich Center for American Research. “She is very science minded, which is great because you have to know the chemistry behind the art,” Stewart said.

Didik specializes in paper and is currently working on all the paper pieces for the Mexican Modernism: Revolution & Reckoning exhibition at Gilcrease. “Conservation is multifaceted. I’m never bored. I can be tired, I can be stressed, but I’m never bored because if you work with art, there are really nice surprises and mysteries that you get to solve to know why certain types of damage have occurred and how you can give this object new life,” Didik said.

Elly Stewart Cleaning a Qing Dynasty Headdress

Innovation in Solving Mysteries

Stewart solved one such mystery when she began working on a Qing Dynasty headdress during her Cleveland internship. “When you see the headdress from a distance, it just looks blue. Then you see it up close and realize there are dozens of teeny, tiny little perfectly cut feathers covering the piece,” Stewart said. There were a lot of conservation issues with the headdress. For one, the backing, made from several layers of paper, had become unstable and because the base was deteriorating, a lot of the feathers were missing, pulling up or dirty.

As Stewart fully assessed the piece, she noticed there was old packing material caked onto the headdress. Because of how the headdress was constructed, she needed to vacuum up the debris. She used her regular vacuum and the smallest attachment she had, but the nozzle was still too large. Stewart cut off the top of a long, plastic dropper and taped the tube to the end of the vacuum, which created a flexible, small nozzle that went through the spaces to clean the feathers safely.

Stewart says there are a lot of tools specific to conservation, but most of them did not previously exist — they are invented on the job. “A good 50% of the tools we use are just jerry-rigged because in reality, conservation is a pretty new field,” Stewart said. Modern conservation picked up around the 1970s, but it is already a competitive field. “You have to showcase that you have really good control and fine motor skills and lots and lots of patience,” Stewart said. “It’s a labor of love for sure. You don’t get into conservation for the money.”

Elly Stewart Cleaning a Qing Dynasty Headdress

Museum Mentors

That sense of collaboration and discovery has been true at both the Cleveland Museum of Art and Gilcrease. “I worked with a lot of amazing, talented, smart, super hilarious women who became really great friends. Everybody is so supportive,” Stewart said. She is particularly grateful for the support of TU professors Kirsten Olds, associate dean of the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of art history, and Maurer. “They have consistently helped me reach my goals. Having two extremely kind and intelligent women there for me has made my TU experience better than I could have imagined,” Stewart said.

From these mentors Stewart has learned that the job of a conservator is to treat every object the exact same, whether someone brings in their grandmother’s collectible ceramics or a Picasso. “It can be really exciting to handle famous pieces of artwork, but also nerve wracking. I would shut down if I thought about it too much,” Stewart said.

Elly Stewart Conserving a Tiffany Lamp

Bringing the Past to the Present

Every conservator specializes in a niche category like objects, paper, textiles or paintings. “I really am attached to three dimensional objects in general. They do a lot more for me, particularly mosaics,” Stewart says. She is currently working with Maurer on her senior paper, which is about the impact medieval mosaics had on sixteenth-century art in Venice.

Stewart traveled to Venice last May and during the class trip she saw several of the works she analyzed in person. “It’s a full body experience when you see these mosaics in the cathedrals. I love them because everything is gold, literally and figuratively,” Stewart said. She explained that Roman and Byzantine mosaics are pieces of gold leaf sandwiched between two pieces of clear glass. “When you walk past now, you can imagine walking in the past with candlelight and incense. There’s singing, and you can just imagine the way the light reflected off them,” she said.

That is the goal of conversation — to bring the history of the past alive in the present. “They say conservation is like a three-legged stool: You need chemistry, the fine arts and history in order to really understand what’s happening,” Stewart said. The history of how people interacted with the piece still impacts people today.