Meet a Conservator—Samantha Shellard

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
14 Sep 2019

What first attracted you to a career in conservation? How did you get started?
Growing up, my interest in conservation was sparked by reading featured articles from our National Geographic Magazine collection. These included the disaster recovery from the Florence flood and the use of technology to capture the restoration process of the Sistine Chapel. I was inspired by how these at-risk artworks were progressively saved. It was fascinating to see how cross-sections revealed the layers of construction. I found it enthralling to read about a profession that was a marriage of both art and science.

A formative moment was a work-experience placement at the Art Gallery of NSW where I visited the conservation studio. I am indebted to paper conservator Rosie Peel who spent time explaining condition reports and giving her insight into artworks undergoing treatment; it was captivating. Whenever I give a lecture, talk or tour I try to engage, inspire and share my passion, as I remember how valuable this was.

What does a typical work day look like for you?
I think the most intriguing aspect of my role is that daily tasks can be so varied. I always find new acquisitions really fascinating especially when you have been following an artist’s career and this new acquisition represents another body of work.

It’s a thrilling possibility to reveal a signature or annotation through a treatment that either confirms the provenance or adds to the understanding and appreciation of the artwork. Being able to share these discoveries with patrons was recently realised when we contributed to a rewarding animation project that showcased discoveries of this type, and involved a collaboration between conservation, education and multi-media teams.

Currently QAGOMA is undergoing an exciting period of transformation as we embark on the use of integrated systems that will transfigure the way we operate. I envisage that the way we undertake our daily tasks over next 10 years will differ dramatically from how we do them today.

Do you have a favourite object or collection that you have worked on?
There are so many favourites—in particular, I’m inspired by contemporary artists creating sublime statements. For instance, every three years we have the Asian Pacific Triennial (APT), which usually involves around 80 to 100 emerging, mid-career and established artists. Often we are in awe of the innovative use of materials that constitute these artworks, such as the stunning suites by Ayesha Sultana (recently displayed during APT9) that consisted of graphite on paper, which was folded into tessellated patterns. The sheen from the burnished surface resembles brushed sheet metal. The sheer size of this series of artworks made an incredible impact and constituted one of our favourites in the show despite being extremely time consuming to document. The preparation for APT is always really challenging—to mount and display—but incredibly rewarding due to the size and complexity of each artwork. We are constantly presented with challenges. It is a delicate balancing act of offering a rich visitor experience that doesn’t put the artwork at risk.

I adore some of the panoramic photographs we have of the Brisbane River over different decades. They give a real sense of stripping back the years: an appreciation of the original terrain and a sense of place so you can appreciate both the built landscape and the topography. What’s really interesting is to determine the cause of the conservation issues and then work out how to rectify them. It is so satisfying when you have the opportunity to take an artwork from a deteriorated state to a much more presentable state so aesthetically the viewer isn’t distracted by the condition or the damage and can focus on the original concept. One of the great benefits of working at QAGOMA is that you can work on historic items as well as contemporary artworks.

Can you think of an experience that has changed your perspective on conservation or how you approached your work?
I am conscious that artworks can be multi-layered, not only literally but figuratively. Recently I had an enlightening experience when looking at a new acquisition called Moving the Line (Tony Albert) with our Indigenous curator, Katina Davidson, when she pointed to one of the playing cards depicted and said ‘That’s my uncle!’ Things like that where there are ‘unexpected’ human links. Or being able to work with families; for instance, with members of the Kenneth Macqueen estate. In such situations, you are not only working on the artwork but are honouring the legacy of the artist and their family. I think that’s really important as it takes what you do to the next level.

Has working in conservation taught you any skills that you use in other areas of your everyday life? Or do you bring everyday skills into the conservation lab?
After studying conservation, I undertook printmaking studies at RMIT. Many skills were transferable both from conservation into creating prints and vice versa, this experience giving me a far greater appreciation of those prints that we have in the QAGOMA collection. And of course there are some similarities between the activities of artists and conservators, especially when we are undertaking trials and testing that resemble an artist’s visual diary in terms of experimentation.   

And I think our training in regard to moving artworks could be extrapolated to the challenges of moving house. Before moving anything, you need to know where it is going and the path it is going to take—mitigating all the risks beforehand, and considering all the logistics. It’s sort of something you learn on the job—being aware of the space around you and potentially what could go wrong, that’s the same sort of thought pattern you have when you consider moving house. And being very resourceful with materials. Basically problem-solve to determine what you have and what you are trying to achieve.

Recently we have been making up sheets of gellan and agarose gels for treatments. And, taking it further, we are looking forward to an upcoming frivolous fun pursuit with colleagues, employing some of these techniques to create cocktails for a drinks night using food grade versions of these gels.

What is one thing you wish more people knew about conservation?
I think probably the multi-faceted nature of conservation and how our profession dove-tails in with so many other professions. At QAGOMA it is really a collaboration between the different sections. Our patrons often consider conservation is just about the artwork but there is also the environment around the object and then considering how we can ensure that artworks travel safely. It’s a wider circle. All of these aspects are interlinked and impact on how an artwork ages. 

Before you can actually treat an object you really have to know how it’s constructed, and I think that aspect is probably underestimated too. Being a conservator means lifelong learning, taking the initiative and motivation to find out more about what you are working on. And how that relates to other works in the collection. Being focused on what you are doing but not working in isolation. Making sure that if there are other suites by the same artist that these are considered too, and taking the opportunity to look at these when you can.

That’s why doing collection hangs, like the up-coming exhibition of works by Jon Molvig, are so important. We are able to see all of the artworks in our collection by that artist. You get a much better understanding of his practice and I think it gives a much richer experience and understanding of his career. Being able to see the relationships between artworks, that’s really so valuable.