Faith Dawson; photo by Cheryl Gerber
In a city that loves a good convention, Renee deVille was pleased to see a significant gathering of some of the 100,000 species of mold, which ruin some of our oldest and most treasured belongings in New Orleans.
OK—it wasn’t so much that she was pleased as determined to get her hands dirty fighting them. After all, it’s tough work keeping 100,000 conventioneers under control.
Tintype photographs, 19th-century marriage certificates, rare collectors’ edition books—because of their age and fragility, these items fall victim to merely existing in New Orleans. Our temperature, humidity, insect life and mishandling, not to mention the happy congregation of mold spores that find ample sustenance on these documents—deVille can’t completely eliminate them, but she can erase some of their damage, whether the item is worth thousands of dollars or only a few pleasant memories.
Book and paper conservator deVille is a New Orleans native, but she traveled next door to enroll in the University of Texas’ library science and conservation programs. As the only local specialist in book and paper conservation, deVille works out of a quiet but bright second-floor studio in Carrollton. No harsh chemicals are evident, which must be reassuring to the customers who seek her services, including retailers such as framers, galleries and auction houses, numerous museums and universities, and more than a few distraught individuals.
“It’s an interesting city, an interesting region because there’s a lot more mold outbreaks,” she says cheerfully. “There is mold everywhere. It’s just a matter of controlling the environment that artifacts are housed in.”
Using methods both basic and highly specialized, deVille gently repairs discoloration caused by mold growth, missing segments of paper called “losses,” tears and other imperfections.
Older pieces are often unable to withstand any except the most delicate handling: art that suffered water damage, for instance, and, now wrinkled, sticks to its backing board and the glass in its frame; an old, crackly document that endured a chemical burn; or a photograph that had been touched up over the decades, only to fade with time, leaving the touch-ups sorely in view.
Most of the items she works on are old; when she does accept a client with a contemporary photograph, often it’s easier and less expensive to have a high-resolution “surrogate” of the photograph scanned and printed with touch-ups on quality paper.
In the world of conservation, sometimes even technology has its place.
“No matter what type of job I’m doing, I always try to find out what [the client’s] goal is: Why are you bringing this to me? What is important to you: is it to stabilize it, or is it aesthetic … Do you want to resell it? Is it a family artifact?”
To prevent further damage, deVille also recommends or incorporates the appropriate housing for delicate documents, such as Mylar sleeves.
Whatever she works on, deVille says, she must have a plan ready, because the items are often so delicate that any misstep or additional handling could ruin them.
Asked if the planning or work comes easily, the soft-spoken deVille replies, “Easy’s relative,” stating that some people might consider scraping backing boards off art for three hours dull, but she enjoys it. “With paper conservation or book conservation, you have to have a real sensitivity to materials,” deVille explains.
Even though most clients only want their possession restored and then prefer not to think about it again, she says, deVille prepares a summary of steps she took to save the piece, for her own records as well as the clients’. Whereas individual clients might receive a one-page summary, a museum or archive might receive a three-page summary.
Interesting that an archive, that sterile warehouse of records, would need the services of a conservator.
“Where does their material come from? A lot of it is donations that were housed in private collections, a lot of things where there’s no way of knowing how they were housed … More importantly, it’s use and handling that’s the No. 1 enemy of artifacts. It’s sad, especially when you work in a library—the whole point of the library is for people to use the materials. It’s a real challenge for collections: You want to service people, but also care for the collection,” she says.
Family heirlooms are among her favorite items to work on because they have stories and sentimental value attached to them. DeVille has worked on presidential pardons, family scrapbooks, even bits of old Con-federate money that have sentimental value to their owners. But there’s one family group that’s never welcome in her studio: the fungi whose spores settle among the pages and photographs that we treasure.
With proper care and restoration, mold spores retire like exhausted conventioneers, only giving up when the party’s truly over.
Renee deVille, 895-7366.