How art conservation defies time

To stand before a work of art is to take in its splendor—bright hues masterfully laid out across the canvas, striking faces with eyes that seem to pierce your soul, and stunning landscapes captured in up to 20 feet tall paintings. As your eyes rove across every detail, you begin to comprehend the weight of time and how art seems to defy it.

Even after decades of sitting idly in museums and galleries, these cultural relics are amazingly preserved, thanks to the magic touch of art conservators.

The country has been home to many virtuosos in Juan Luna and Fernando Amorsolo, who remain immortal through their creations that conservators revive. For 24 years, independent conservator Missy Sanares-Reyes has hovered over dingy canvases and fractured statuaries, moved by a sense of love and responsibility for our artistic heritage.

Into the thick of it

The arduous conservation of art begins with dirty work, assessing the filth, holes, and overall damage. Sanares-Reyes traces most of the ruin of artworks—molds, cracked paint, fading colors—to the environment. “Because [our climate is] so hot and humid, it can cause a lot of damage to any kind of material,” she points out.

She introduces us to her studio, where one of her colleagues currently works on a painting of a cherry blossom tree. “It was torn before, but [my colleague] was able to patch the holes, and now she is retouching [those] parts,” Sanares-Reyes explains. The process of restoring art is meticulous; she explains that one must be careful not to impinge on the original artistry of the piece. “You have to respect the original. You cannot alter it [nor] use things that will be permanent, [but instead] use materials that can be removed.”

Art conservators bring in proficiency from various disciplines, whether they are working in a studio or at a church on top of scaffolds 30 feet high. Having finished degrees in art conservation and art history, Sanares-Reyes had to go back to school to gain credits in chemistry, yet another field related to art restoration. She finds being adept at carpentry—for constructing the frames—and even physical agility—for climbing up scaffolds during fresco restorations—to require dedication and versatility out of every art conservator.

“It takes an interesting skill set [but] most of all, patience and love,” Sanares-Reyes expresses. She regards her profession as demanding but equally—exceedingly, even—satisfying. Perhaps it would be easier to have these artworks preserved in a digital format simply, but she doubts it can come even close to replacing the original. “There is sacredness to the original piece,” she claims endearingly, “[It] becomes a religious experience when you see an original work of art that you used to see only in books.”

Even after over two decades of working as an art conservator, Sanares-Reyes ponders upon her profession with bright eyes and a warm smile, “It gives you some kind of fulfillment to know that you [have] contributed to preserving a piece of art that will be handed down to generations.”

Going back to the roots

Artworks are an enduring source of knowledge for anthropologists and history curators, who regard the pieces as snapshots of society, culture, and daily lives of the past and up to the present. “It’s good to go back to your roots to see where you’re going forward,” Sanares-Reyes says, describing artworks as a door to the past—a peek into how things like the beliefs, attitudes, and talents of people then can influence that of people in the present. With profound respect for Filipino heritage, she expresses that everything across time is encased in the arts.

The struggle of what is considered Filipino is also often in question, especially when it comes to intertwinings of external cultures and traditions in the process. Sanares-Reyes cites Juan Luna’s world-renowned work as an example of its use of borrowed European art forms, noting that despite its external influences, the symbolism present within the art reflects the Filipino ideals, hopes, and dreams of the art at the time.

“It’s what we do with it to make it our own that gives it its stamp of identity,” she opines, describing the Filipino talent as one that can create magic out of whatever is given, even for the things that are not indigenous to them. As many Filipinos often look to indigenous cultures for inspiration, appreciation, and admiration, it upholds the significance of why traces of these cultures—found in the arts and its works—must be preserved for generations to come. 

Uncertain ambitions

Despite their best efforts, there remains a scarcity of art conservators in the country. The opportunities for one to be trained and educated in art preservation are costly and not readily available. Sanares-Reyes says many budding conservators will find themselves having to train under mentors and take up studies all across Asia and Europe.

Scholarships were generously offered by different learning opportunities but have since become rare because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our world has different priorities now; with this pandemic, funding for cultural endeavors is the first that will disappear in times of need,” she laments.

Sanares-Reyes notes that while the field is mainly supported by art collectors who need conservators to preserve and take care of their art collections, their demand also falls within the scope of public and private works of art. “We also want to help preserve public art, you know? Public sculptures and things like that, and national parks,” she expounds, highlighting that despite the niche outlook of the field, there exists an unseen need for their profession. 

Advancements in technologies over the years have made it possible to use different kinds of special equipment and machinery to automate certain tasks and procedures to conserve art more efficiently and with less effort. But she says acquiring modern equipment is difficult and expensive, especially for a profession that has only very limited means to do so. Despite this, she believes in the words given by one of her colleagues: “The best thing is to know how to do everything with your hands from the beginning.” After all, what can be done by a machine is only augmenting what can be done by hand. 

Art anew

Sanares-Reyes fondly recounts one of her memorable experiences working on a Botong Francisco mural. “What made the experience additionally enriching was that the owner—knowing that it was such a huge piece—said, ‘Please go ahead and hire students to help you.’” She has witnessed the younger generation’s energy, enthusiasm, and ingenuity and discovered the certainty of a better future for Philippine art conservation.

Her generation of restorers has been minimal in number and in establishing awareness of the importance of conserving art. With today’s better access to technology and research, she envisions braver and stronger voices that would bring forward the nation’s responsibility to preserve our national artworks, whether it be a painting, a circa 60s film reel, or an old Art Deco building.

Sanares-Reyes finds art made anew and art preservation efforts renewed through the upcoming generation of conservators who will seal its cracks and patch up its holes. “It keeps me going as well, to see [them sharing] the passion, [and] whether there’s big money in it for them or not, they still forge ahead.”

With heartfelt conviction, she expresses, “When you see that kind of passion and willingness to sacrifice, then you just know that there is hope for the future.”

By Matthew Gan

By Lizelle Villaflor

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