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Meet the Staff: Jane Boyd and the art of the paper lab

By Isabel Dunn

Meet the Staff is a blog post series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. This installment of Meet the Staff is released in conjunction with our series for the American Library Association’s Annual Preservation Week, which highlights work in the Ransom Center’s preservation and conservation division.

Working under a microscope with a tiny brush, paper conservator Jane Boyd applies a solvent and adhesive to the fragile areas of a Miguel Covarrubias painting. The solvent carries the adhesive under the paint layer, which consolidates the paint layer to help prevent further chipping.

 

Assistant paper conservator Jane Boyd consolidates paint layers of a damaged Miguel Covarrubias gouache painting.
Assistant paper conservator Jane Boyd consolidates paint layers of a damaged Miguel Covarrubias gouache painting.

 

Paint detail of Tehuana, Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957), undated. Photo by Jane Boyd.
Paint detail of Tehuana, Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957), undated. Photo by Jane Boyd.

The painting is one of many gouache paintings in the Ransom Center’s Covarrubias collection that is beginning to experience paint flaking. “A museum in San Antonio wanted to exhibit these paintings,” says Boyd, “but we had to turn them down because they’re currently too fragile to handle and ship.” Flaking paint is a common problem with gouache paintings on paper. There are many factors that may be causing the media to flake, including how thickly the paint was applied or the quality of the materials used.

 

Paint detail of earring on subject in Tehuana, Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957), undated. Photo by Jane Boyd.
Paint detail of earring on subject in Tehuana, Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957), undated. Photo by Jane Boyd.

The preservation and conservation division is seeking a grant to hire someone to help with the project. “As you can imagine, this work is incredibly time-intensive,” Boyd notes. “As much as I like detail work, I can share the fun.” As we set priorities with curators for which collection items will receive treatment in the near term, we will also target cohesive collections with particular needs.

 

Conservation is a unique field because it combines the chemistry of materials science with appreciation for art, culture, and history. Boyd becomes closely engaged with her work when she reflects on the significance of the pieces in the Ransom Center collections. “I love digging through to find the levels of scholarship.” Currently, Boyd is working with a set of original courtroom drawings for The Washington Post, recently acquired materials that enhance the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers.

 

These drawings, done in black marker and ink, primarily on vellum paper, were mock-ups Post editors used when planning newspaper layouts. Accordingly, the pieces are affixed to illustration board with archival and masking tape, with corresponding titles, sizing, printer instructions, and traffic department stamps.

 

Boyd carefully examines the damages of an item from the Woodward and Bernstein collection, 2016, courtesy of Boyd.
Boyd carefully examines the damages of an item from the Woodward and Bernstein collection, 2016, courtesy of Boyd.

 

Over time, adhesive from the tape can seep into the images and damage them. Boyd is evaluating these pieces to determine which ones need the most attention. Like many projects, Boyd must grapple with the question of artist intention. These mock-ups were drafts. To what extent should tape and tears be removed? These imperfections, if kept, could provide helpful clues for researchers. For projects like this one, Boyd consults Ransom Center conservators and seeks curatorial knowledge about the items in question to determine what would best preserve the integrity of the piece.

 

Having lived through the Watergate hearings, Boyd is especially fascinated by this collection. “When I’m working with materials, I often find myself wishing I could learn all about them. I’ll get really involved in one treatment, but I have to move on because there are seven or eight others that I need to be working on, too.”

 

David Suter (b. 1950), David Suter, Untitled [H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Richard Nixon], David Suter (1950— ). Undated. Ink on vellum; approx. 19 ¼ x 13 inches.<br />Depicts an Oval Office meeting between President Richard Nixon and two of his most loyal and trusted aides, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, both of whom were often referred to by White House staff members as “The Berlin Wall” due to their fierce protectiveness of Nixon. Haldeman was especially close with the president, with Nixon relying on him to filter the information that came into his office, and it was during a discussion between the two men that the famous unexplained 18 ½ minute gap in the Oval Office recordings occurred. Ehrlichman had created “The Plumbers,” the group at the center of the Watergate scandal, and was heavily involved in the subsequent cover-up. Both advisors—friends for over 20 years—would eventually be forced to resign by Nixon as the scandal mounted; convicted of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice; and serve 18 months apiece in federal prison.
David Suter (b. 1950), David Suter, Untitled [H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Richard Nixon], David Suter (1950— ). Undated. Ink on vellum; approx. 19 ¼ x 13 inches.
Depicts an Oval Office meeting between President Richard Nixon and two of his most loyal and trusted aides, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, both of whom were often referred to by White House staff members as “The Berlin Wall” due to their fierce protectiveness of Nixon. Haldeman was especially close with the president, with Nixon relying on him to filter the information that came into his office, and it was during a discussion between the two men that the famous unexplained 18 ½ minute gap in the Oval Office recordings occurred. Ehrlichman had created “The Plumbers,” the group at the center of the Watergate scandal, and was heavily involved in the subsequent cover-up. Both advisors—friends for over 20 years—would eventually be forced to resign by Nixon as the scandal mounted; convicted of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice; and serve 18 months apiece in federal prison.

 

From left to right: Hugo Peller, a Swiss master bookbinder, Don Etherington, Jane Boyd, and Decherd Turner, former director of the Harry Ransom Center.
From left to right: Hugo Peller, a Swiss master bookbinder, Don Etherington, Jane Boyd, and Decherd Turner, former director of the Harry Ransom Center.

Jane Boyd was one of the first three assistant conservators hired into the conservation program in 1980. Don Etherington, former Assistant Director and Chief Conservation Officer at the Ransom Center, had just developed a comprehensive conservation program for the collections. He designed the book, paper, and photographic labs and training programs for budding conservators. Boyd started out in the book lab, where she received hands-on training. Before working here, she had begun to pursue a graduate degree in art history at The University of Texas at Austin, but left the program because the Center’s rigorous training program was teaching her the professional skills she needed for conservation.

 

Jane Boyd (center) showing a type of mat housing to a workshop. To Boyd’s right is Patricia Hendricks, former staff member of what is now the Blanton Museum of Art. Undated; photographer unknown.
Jane Boyd (center) showing a type of mat housing to a workshop. To Boyd’s right is Patricia Hendricks, former staff member of what is now the Blanton Museum of Art. Undated; photographer unknown.

 

Boyd was also drawn to conservation because of her life-long interest in creating art. As a child, Boyd would spend hours drawing. Making something three-dimensional on a blank page fascinated her. This fascination explains her affinity for paper conservation. “I’ve always had an affinity for art on paper. To me, it feels closest to art. I didn’t feel as in tune with different processes—book, photo, or other materials—as I did with the possibilities in the paper world. I love working with ink, pencils, and print media.”

 

Jane Boyd (far right) teaching matting and housing to a class. Undated; unknown photographer.
Jane Boyd (far right) teaching matting and housing to a class. Undated; unknown photographer.

 

When Boyd returned to the Ransom Center in 2003, after a period of freelancing, she got started on one of her biggest projects. The Ransom Center had acquired the voluminous archive of the British theatrical costumier B. J. Simmons & Co. From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces, and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons also provided costumes for over 100 films including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.

 

B. J. Simmons & Co.’s costume design for Ivan and Tony in the film <em>Tom Thumb</em>, circa 1958.
B. J. Simmons & Co.’s costume design for Ivan and Tony in the film Tom Thumb, circa 1958.

 

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the collection was being preserved, arranged, described, and partly digitized. The collection includes more than 30,000 costume drawings, thousands of which had to be unfolded, humidified, and flattened by Boyd and other Ransom Center conservators, under the supervision of Stephanie Watkins, then head of the paper lab. Many of the drawings included fabric swatches, from which conservators had to remove countless rusty pins.

 

Conservators have a keen eye for detail, and Boyd is no exception. Boyd reflects that, “Not everyone is well-suited to repetitive work, but it doesn’t bother me. I love the methodical aspects of conservation, the fussiness of getting everything just right.” Ultimately, Boyd’s love for conservation stems from her interest in creative problem solving and her love of fixing things. “I love restoring things from a broken state to whole again.”

 

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