Sara Jo Boesen conserves old paintings.
Sara Jo Boesen liked to paint, yet she didn’t really want to be an artist. She loved the art and history aspect, as both her parents were auctioneers.
When she attended art school at the Savannah College of Art and Design, she explored art careers, including meeting with the head of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
There, the director explained art conservation, where an artist conserves, preserves and restores damaged or old art pieces. For the degree, she’d need to take chemistry and attend graduate school. He warned her that U.S. colleges rarely accepted fine art conservation majors.
“He tried to talk me out of it. It’s a hard field to get into,” recalls Boesen.
She attended the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and obtained her master’s degree in painting conservation.
Today, she offers her expertise at SJ Fine Art Conservation at Mainframe Studios in Des Moines. At the studio, various paintings arrive for inspection from private owners, heirloom collections, private and public colleges, and corporations.
Once she receives the piece, she dons a magnifying jeweler’s lens and gloves and inspects the artwork. She’ll look for cracks, flaking paint, grime, discolored varnish, tears in the canvas and frames. The weather does a number on paintings, including fading from UV rays, she says. Humidity swells and contracts certain textures or creates mold, and woodworms and other pests nibble on frames.
She writes a condition report of how the artwork was made and what issues need fixing or stabilizing, as well as other esthetic issues. Once the owner approves the repairs, she gets to work.
Boesen first identifies varnish and paint types as to what cleaner she’ll use. Then, she’ll remove the grime or flaking paint. She’ll mend tears, cracks or paper coming from the edge of the frame, choosing from dozens of adhesives and solvents. Her chemistry background comes in handy identifying which materials to use.
“No two pieces are the same,” she says. “Before I repair something, I do a small test to determine what adhesive works best. I test all the colors, making sure they match decades-old paint.”
Repairs average about 15-50 hours of work, while one item took 500 hours. The oldest piece she’s worked on was a 15th century Italian cassone, a wedding chest with gold gilding, typically received by recently married brides.
She’s careful to retain an artist’s original work, even if that artist made a mistake.
“I do no harm and never paint over an original unless there is loss. I don’t ever take creative license of the artist’s work. You never know what the artist is thinking,” she says.
Boesen’s goal isn’t to make the painting brand new, since the original artist has “perspective right.” She’s reached out to artists still living to ask what they’d like done. She adds, “It can sometimes be a pain working with a living artist.”
She’s unique in her field and one of a handful of conservators in the Midwest. She likes the challenge.
“Every day is different. I love art and the ability to get up close with an artist’s work. It’s fascinating to me,” Boesen says. ♦