Art conservator Ellen Watt, above, is another in a long list of creative people who have chosen to locate their business in the CWE. When Ellen started Watt Restoration in 1996 she operated her business from home while raising her three sons. Last spring, when she and her husband decided to downsize, she moved her business to a studio in the CWE.
Ellen earned a B.A. in Art History and a Masters in Liberal Arts from Washington University. In the 1970s she interned at Cahokia Mounds and at the Museum of Transportation of St. Louis. In the 80s, she appraised paintings at Selkirk's Auction Gallery, which was located at Whittier and Olive in Gaslight Square. Ellen has an interesting take on art from that era: "Western art was going nuts…Art was more of a money game, it was 'investments rather than aesthetics'…that was when (J. Paul) Getty bought his collection.”
It was while working at Selkirk's that she realized her interests veered toward caring for paintings rather than appraisals. After researching the field of art conservation and developing a business plan, Ellen began taking art conservation workshops at the Smithsonian and other accredited conservation institutes. She joined professional conservation organizations and attended conservation conferences in the U.S. and England.
In the photo above Ellen is working with special conservation paints to repair a painting (she works on oil and water-based acrylic paintings). A typical project takes months to complete, so she can only work on a couple at a time.
Ellen defines an art conservator as an art restorer who works within strict guidelines to "preserve" an artifact for posterity. Conservation strives to be minimally invasive to the original artifact. Reversible materials are used (conservation paints) so that all repair work can easily be undone in the future. Any new paint applied to an object is carefully contained to areas of loss and thoroughly documented in a report.
Ellen has built up her client list by word of mouth as well as referrals from the St. Louis Art Museum.
Though paintings are very hardy they need maintenance every 50 to 100 years. If they have been stored in a basement or attic the canvas can get misshapen and the paint flakes. Ellen spends hours of advance preparation before she even touches a painting – the paint's chemistry needs to be analyzed, etc. Art conservation is a science-oriented skill and for that reason a large area of Ellen's studio is devoted to chemistry books and charts, above.
The process begins with cleaning the painting of dirt and/or discolored varnish (a normal occurrence). Then Ellen repairs holes or tears in the canvas, and if necessary repairs the painting's support.
I asked Ellen if there was a painting that she has worked on that was particularly interesting. She described a large early American portrait of a woman from South Carolina by an artist named Benbridge. On the back of the portrait was a label from the James Williams Gallery. Williams was an antiques dealer from Savannah, Georgia who was featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
For more information, contact Ellen through her website, Watt Restoration, or (314) 750-7493.