Art Conservator: James Squires

Clyfford Still Museum’s chief conservator James Squires is an artist in his own right. Perhaps not in the literal sense, but definitely in the way where one shares in the responsibility of preserving a legend’s valuable paintings.

Photo by Paul Miller.

American painter and abstract expressionist Clyfford Still is still making an impression today. Known for his unwillingness to compromise any of his works for money or recognition, Still’s unprecedented artistic vision has stayed true to the course thanks to the talented hands of art conservator James Squires. Squires also shares his wealth of knowledge on the conservation of heritage at the University of Denver, where he teaches students about the philosophical side and meticulous techniques of this unique field.

We’re very intrigued to learn about your unique job. What is your current role at the Clyfford Still Museum?
“I oversee the care and visual interpretation of the paintings in the Clyfford Still Museum. Without getting too technical, I basically help fulfill Clyfford Still’s wish by specializing in the preservation, and if necessary, restoration, of his paintings. It is our mission to preserve and restore his works in order to keep [Still’s] irreplaceable message in tact as much as possible.”

What does an art conservator do?
“Art (cultural heritage) conservation is an amalgamation of three disciplines: art, art history, and the sciences. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure Still’s life’s work exists in perpetuity. I study Still’s materials through the lens of the three disciplines to understand both how they have changed over time and how to limit further change from occurring to better understand his original intent. Understanding his intent is necessary to ensure Still’s original vision, seen through the artworks, remains intact.”

Describe a typical day on the job.
“Every day is always different. We may test Still’s materials to determine how fast the colors fade when exposed to light. With that information, I work with my colleagues on the Collections team, to develop and institute policies and procedures that will ensure the artwork’s long-term preservation. That is why, for example, Museum’s arduously control temperature, relative humidity, and light levels in the galleries. If a painting is physically damaged or visually disfigured, I may restore the work to a semblance of its original appearance.”

How is the restoration process executed?
“Generally, I work with the curator who provides their expertise and dialogue around the cultural aspects of the art and its esthetic. I may even analyze the paints prior to treatment before any restoration treatment spot tests are undertaken to ensure I don’t damage the original paint. Procedures range from removing darkened layers of grime and varnishes, revealing the bright-colored paint underneath, filling, texturing, and toning them (if there are losses of paint) to reintegrate the damages back into Still’s composition. Throughout this restoration process, I am also mindful of the artwork’s history to not remove for conceal all of the changes that occurred to the painting over time. It’s a delicate balance but one that’s exhilarating at the same time.”

In your opinion, why should Clyfford Still’s work be preserved?
“Clyfford Still’s new and powerful take on painting should always be preserved. For example, as he evolved as an artist, his works transitioned from recognizable images or landscapes to more abstract shapes, colors, and lines which ultimately expressed an idea or feeling on huge canvases. Still’s goal was for people to get lost in his works and make their own interpretations of his art. I act as a vehicle if you will for people to ‘get lost’ in his works as he fully intended when he created them.”

Is it ever overwhelming?
“Early on, absolutely. Part of my job is to honor the artist’s original intent the best I can. But what is that intent? What did it look like? What is the nature of the change that we’re seeing? I ask myself these questions every day. When I started it was very overwhelming because you basically have to take responsibility of how the artist’s work is going to be interpretated to the public. It’s a lot to take in.”

Any final words for our readers on your profession and what you do?
“It’s exciting that people, museum visitors, are becoming aware of art conservation. As museums ‘pull back the curtain’ and shed light on the many interesting jobs within a museum, conservation can provide a new and unique perspective that may enhance a patron’s perspective, understanding, and connection to art—and specifically in our case, Clyfford Still’s art.”