A blast of cold wind rushes in through a crack in the door, accompanied by the sight of several cardboard boxes leaned against the pristine walls. The scent in the air is clean, sterilised, clinical. A large table fills most of the room where consultation for the patients occurs. The sounds of air conditioning units humming accompany the flurry of activity going on behind a large shelf, sounds of paper rustling and laminated sheets wobbling, sounds of the art doctor at work.
This is The PIA (Preserve In Aesthetics) Studio, where Josephine Chang and Mandy Tan lead a team of conservators who specialise in the conservation and restoration of paper artworks. Alongside art, they also operate on rare archival collections. The studio offers a range of services and ensures to advise their clients as best they can throughout the process of handling their artworks or materials — From the initial condition assessment, throughout the conservation process, to the framing and packing before ultimately providing handling advice to ensure that the condition of the item stays pristine. On top of it all, principal conservator Josephine also conducts talks and workshops to those seeking knowledge in the paper preservation industry. But to get to this point was not an easy journey.
The field took 22 years for Josephine to fully master, with the passion starting a year after graduating from Lasalle College of the Arts which led her to study conservation techniques on organic materials in London. At this time, art conservation wasn’t a massively popular industry and was quite a niche area, but it came down to the fact that artworks needed taking care of. With this in mind, Josephine began her journey in conservation starting in Camberwell college in London to where she is now, with a dedicated team and her own conservation studio. In those arduous years, Josephine possessed the understanding of passion, patience and precision. It is this type of mastery and experience that has allowed Josephine to join the National Gallery as the team lead in the art care department for 2 years. The PIA Studio has also been appointed as paper conservator for both the National Gallery and ArtScience Museum.
One of the newest arrivals to the clinic is 9 whole volumes of Oriental Chinese medicine books. The total comes up to just over 1400 pages, which have to be taken care of individually then reassembled into their original order. Conservation Assistants began this process by firstly dismantling the books, surface cleaning with a grated eraser and preparing for lining. Since the paper is brittle and fragile, each sheet had to be handled with great care and washed in a de-acidification solution to neutralise the acids and discolouration that has occurred over the years. This is carried out typically with an immersion bath of considerably diluted solution, and the sheets were, finally, air-dried prior to their next step. Each page was then adhered to Chinese paper for strengthening (the selected paper was the closest in texture and thickness to its original paper). The final step was to stitch all these pages together according to its respective title.
"I always say, to work in this industry, you need the three P's: Passion, Patience and Precision." - Josephine Chang
From a small niche industry in the 90s to the wide variety of studios dedicated to art conservation, the journey for this field has been driven by the amounts of people intensely passionate about it. The discipline takes great work and mastery by those wishing to pursue it, and there is no doubt in that. But the truth is undeniable that with the glitz and glamour of the art world, there need to be people behind the scenes studying an entirely different type of art — The art of conservation.
Preserve in Aesthetics studio: