Art conservationist Susan Brown reveals the secrets behind her skills at LOCA Art Talk next week

By MARRIE STONE

Like many Laguna locals, Chris Blum now lives in the home where he spent much of his childhood. He purchased his grandmother’s 1920s cottage after she died, keeping the same oil painting that has hung above the fireplace for more than 50 years. His pal, Mike Tauber, recently noticed the piece. “It’s a gorgeous historic painting,” Tauber said. “I asked if we could borrow it to analyze at our upcoming LOCA event.”

Blum was thrilled. He’s not an art collector, but he loves the painting and wants to ensure that it’s properly maintained. “It’s obviously very old and they’ve never had it preserved,” Tauber said. “They want to know what they can do to make it last forever.”

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Photo by Mike Tauber

A Ruth Eaton Peabody painting from the mid-20th century, owned by Laguna local Chris Blum, will be unveiled at next Thursday’s LOCA Art Talk and evaluated by art conservator Susan Brown

Enter Susan Brown. The Florentine-trained art conservationist has worked in the industry for more than three decades. She has restored paintings valued in the millions, including the works of European masters like Monet and Caravaggio, and American icons Jackson Pollock and Billy Al Bengston. But Brown has a fondness for Laguna, where she lives and works, restoring paintings by local legends like William Wendt and Frank Cuprien.

LOCA invites the public to attend Brown’s evaluation of the painting, happening next Thursday, Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m. Turns out, it’s a Ruth Eaton Peabody piece from the mid-20th century. Peabody moved to Laguna around 1924 with her mother, artist Elanor Colburn, and they both became active in the Laguna Beach Art Association. Her work can be found in Laguna Art Museum’s permanent collection. And her 1933 bronze sculpture, entitled Boy and Dog, is located in Jahraus Park, making it the oldest piece of public art in Laguna. Stories like Blum’s are common around our town, where artistic treasures often hide in plain sight.

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Photo by Mike Tauber

Art conservator Susan Brown has worked in the industry for more than three decades

Brown will use the Peabody painting as a teaching tool for art enthusiasts, collectors and artists alike, explaining the principles and ethics behind art restoration and preservation. She hasn’t yet evaluated the work, wanting the audience to experience her fresh and authentic reaction to the piece. “It will be like I’m walking into somebody’s home, or a corporation or museum, so everybody can experience how this works,” Brown said. “Hopefully they go home and look at their own paintings in a different way, for better or worse. Because once you know, you can’t unknow.”

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Photo by Mike Tauber

Art conservator Susan Brown with the Ruth Peabody painting she will evaluate at next week’s LOCA Art Talk

After a few minutes talking to Brown, I was mentally evaluating my own modest collection. Fortunately, there are some useful and easy things you can do to protect your art and lengthen the life of your paintings. “Dust is acid,” said Brown. “It eats the painting.” Closing the back of the canvas insulates the work and acts as a moisture barrier, keeping out dust. That’s just one of many tips.

Brown also plans to give artists information about how to protect work as it’s being created. “Some things are simple and not expensive if you do them from the beginning,” said Brown, whose experiences have taught her that certain techniques and materials age better than others. Plus, protocols change over time. It takes a conservationist’s experience with art that’s aged over centuries to know what works best.

For example, back in the day, conservationists flattened paintings using hot irons. And Brown still has a closet full of dental tools because, even 20 years ago, they didn’t make tools for conservationists.

“People think I’m a magician. That I can just do this,” Brown said. “But it’s like building a house. You have to understand the structure and the materials. There are a limited number of solutions. And there are protocols. You have to understand the techniques of the original work, as well as the painting’s future. How will it be displayed, will it be on loan, will it be stored, is it going to hang in a house, or is it going to travel? You need to know all the different things about a painting’s life to know how to protect it.”

With degrees in both painting and bronze casting sculpture, Brown did her conservationist training at the University of Florence and SACI (Studio Arts College International), working closely with Roberta Lapucci, one of Florence’s top restorers. She also worked with the curator of the Vatican Museum, helping with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel.

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Courtesy of LOCA

Art Conservator Susan Brown at work on a Caravaggio painting

“I learned so many things in Italy that I probably wouldn’t have picked up in America,” Brown said. “They have a casualness [with art], although it’s very serious to them. Working with these kinds of objects is part of their culture, so there was a peaceful, casual nature to their approach. Something about their steadfast knowledge and love of their art that was so relaxing.”

Brown remembers a time her mentor delivered a priceless piece to the Uffizi Gallery. She toted the piece through the streets of Florence in a paper sack. “You don’t want people to know what you have,” her mentor told her.

“But they also have such wicked protocols,” Brown said. “They never outshine the master of the piece or put themselves into it in any way. Although the paintings are different there, I brought that sentimentality home with me.”

That sentimentality is what makes Brown so passionate about preserving Laguna’s artistic traditions. “As Californians, it’s sometimes hard for us to appreciate our heritage,” she said. “I wish people would learn to love their own stories. It might not seem important now, but we need to keep these paintings and artifacts here.”

It’s those old stories, along with her passion for art, that keep Brown connected to this profession. She talked about restoring several Civil War portraits, preserving the musket holes that pierced the canvases. She shared the story of a German painting that was saved during WWII from a village near Hitler’s bunker. The family fled their home in the snow, transporting only a few treasured possessions on a sled. The painting still had straw embedded in the back of its canvas.

Brown works with private collectors, corporations and museums alike. She will be joined on stage by Jennifer Keil, director of the Moulton Museum and founder of 70 Degrees. Brown has worked closely with Keil, helping with restorations, securing loans for exhibitions and maintaining the Moulton’s collection. Keil will be sharing the curatorial process for their upcoming Women on the Ranch exhibit, where they will honor Nellie Gail Moulton’s legacy with her memoir and fine art. Keil will showcase the before and after process of the paintings conserved by Susan Brown.

“I love being a conservationist in private practice because I love the stories. I love the relationships. It’s a small community and we know where things are. We help find things for exhibitions,” Brown said.

“[The Moulton Museum staff] is young and they have a lot of vision and energy. I spend time just talking to them, showing them what I did to a painting and seeing if they notice the difference and how it changes the whole composition when the painting is in balance. We talk about what they want the collection to look like, how we should exhibit it, how to hang paintings to give them a unified appearance. They don’t have in-house conservators, so it’s fun to work with them.”

“Susan has been a dynamic conservator who has transformed our collection and has helped me secure private collector loans for our exhibits,” Keil said.

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Courtesy of LOCA

Art Conservator Susan Brown and Moulton Museum Director Jennifer Keil will present “Secrets of Art Conservation” at the next LOCA Art Talk on February 22

“We felt that art conservation was a good topic because these discussions are not often made available to the public,” Tauber said.

Art is a private business, usually happening behind closed studio doors. But art conservation is even more private due to confidentiality and security concerns. Brown uses the utmost discretion with her clients, protecting their privacy at all costs. This talk is a rare opportunity to step inside her process.

“Secrets of Art Conservation with Susan Brown and Jennifer Keil” will take place at the LCAD Gallery located at 374 Ocean Ave. in Laguna Beach on Thursday, Feb. 22 from 5:30-7 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit their website here.


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