Volume 14, Number 1, Jan. 1992, pp.31-32

Zora's Column

by Zora Sweet Pinney

When we have as stimulating a group of subjects and people as we had in Seattle, the WAAC meetings are unforgettable. Unknown treasure unfolded for me where I had no inkling it lay hidden. Just chatting with others in the field opened doors that generated new ideas and solutions to old questions. Judging by the diversity of the papers and some of the intense conversations between others, I'm certain that other people found riches of their own.

Sitting with me on the bus going to the Burke Museum was a young woman who has spent all her life in the Seattle area. She is very much involved with Alaskan and Indian artifacts. When we arrived at the Burke Museum and began roaming the exhibits, she excitedly pointed out a series of totem poles. What caught her eye, to my amazement, was what appeared to be an image of a totem pole graphically delineating a giant brush. As we continued to look along the walls, we saw the same pole illustrated in other photographs, taken at different times or from other positions. Imagining the story about the artist who would be symbolized by a huge brush set me off on a new trail. In my search for the history of artists' brushes, I have heard about macerated twig ends used by New Mexican Indians to decorate their ceramics, but the uses, making and structure of those used in the Pacific Northwest has escaped my curiosity. Now I'm looking for the story buried in that brush, just waiting to be told.

Being a Southern Californian sailor (or is that "sailess"?), I leap at any chance to be waterborne. The banquet and the company on Virginia V historic steamboat was an experience to be savored for a very long time. The weather was perfect and the landscape was lush. The conversations were social, philosophical and conservatorial. The atmosphere was loaded with conviviality. And I found myself in the middle of a fortuitous happening. Unfortunately, I missed Mitchell Hearns Bishop's paper on literature sources, but on the boat we had an opportunity to talk a bit. He told me about the Pissarro letter he described in his paper (subsequently he sent me a copy), and I told him about a remarkable experience I had at The Getty Center.

Susan Malkoff Moon, the librarian at GCI, invited me to visit the Center. While there, she showed me a recently acquired painting box from about the late 18th or early l9th century. Together we lovingly opened the beautiful marquetry inlaid box that still had the feel of the owner about it. It was a little like looking into an Elizabethan lady's lingerie drawer. On lifting out the top tray, I saw a small folded piece of paper which I opened gingerly. Inside were about six tiny feathers, each a little over an inch long by about 1/4-inch at the widest spot, that came to an exceptional point. Striped in a very delicate tan and white, they were superlative to see. I realized that I was looking at the very tips of a woodcock's wings. There is only one such feather in each wing. It has been referred to as a "perfect little watercolor brush." Steeped in the mysteries of artists' brush history as I am, it was like finding a dainty magic wand. For several years, brushmakers had dropped hints about these miniaturists' tools, but never had I seen even an illustration, let alone been able to conjure up their loveliness, or handle one.

While I was telling Mitchell about my find, Barbara Roberts joined our conversation. Her reaction sent Mitchell and me into paroxysms of laughter and amazement. Her brothers are sportsmen, in Scotland, and often go game hunting. They have, in the past, sent her woodcock feathers, and she offered to ask them to send some for me. What had been magic became the feather in a huntsman's cap and a promised reality to add to my collection of painters' esoteric tools.

In my talk, the task I set for myself in sharing information about brushes was to increase the awareness of these indispensable tools, and their partnership with us in the production and conservation of works of art. I didn't think that what I had to say about brushes was innovative or new. I did feel that we often take our best friends for granted, and occasionally it helps to be prodded into examining our closest relationships. It was gratifying to find that there was not only superficial interest, but the kind of response that made me feel that leaps forward were generated as far as care and feeding are concerned.

After I returned home, brushes that were in dire need of conservation were sent to me in the mail. They were clogged with dried gook (scientific term). The positive side is that the person who sent those brushes got the message and was interested enough to ask what to do. It wasn't very difficult, but it was time consuming to return them to not new, but usable condition. I will return the brushes with caveats: the best quality, soft, natural hair brushes can be more easily returned to their original state, exclusive of wear, than can those of poor quality. Brushes must not be allowed to rest on their tips for any length of time. Rinse them thoroughly in the appropriate solvent as soon as possible. When the work session is finished, wash and re-form them with soap (not detergent) or a commercial artists' brush cleaner, using cool or lukewarm water. Above all, to avoid spending mountains of money on brushes--care for them properly. Brushes are your allies in your work. When treated with respect, they behave with grace and dignity and do your bidding. Treat them crudely, and they behave badly.

So I had the pleasure of both giving and receiving, and I expect that many others would join me in accolades for the Seattle WAAC meeting. My thanks to everyone who planned so well and participated so eagerly. Each successive WAAC meeting can only be more productive...but Seattle will be a tough act to follow.

(Zora Sweet Pinney is a fine arts technical consultant and a WAAC Member at Large.)

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