It could be a large sculpture on the National Mall. It could be a small whimsical figure that captures some magic at Walt Disney World Resort.
In many realms – figures, frames and beyond – Russell Bernabo brings objects back to their original splendor.
Working primarily from his Ashland home and studio, Bernabo is well-known in the field of object conservation – which, he notes, is very different from restoration.
"The usual goal in restoration is to make the object as attractive as possible," even if some of the processes are destructive, he said. "The priority in conservation is preservation of historic materials through methods that do not cause additional damage."
We asked Bernabo (pronounced ber-NAY-bo) for some details about his highly detailed work.
As a kid, did you have hobbies or talents that led you to conservation?
I was not a child who tinkered with things or did amateur carving. But I was a child concerned with keeping things in good condition.
I liked playing with toys, making sure the Legos got repackaged in the box the same way they originally were when I took off the shrink wrap. I was one of those kids who had their toys in the original boxes in good condition. I clearly had a predilection for conservation work!
How did you develop your skills over the years?
I had the great fortune of attending the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware for graduate school. It's an advanced degree in curatorial studies and object connoisseurship.
I took advantage of the opportunity to also learn about conservation after leaving Winterthur. I worked with specialists and highly regarded conservators in the Philadelphia area. I moved to Virginia approximately 25 years ago and continued to work with other respected conservators and learn from them.
The field of conservation requires constant professional development and improvement. It has an aggressive academic side to it. The training never stops.
What are some challenges in your line of work?
Many of my projects are challenging because of the inappropriate restorations that have been done to them previously. That is a constant source of amazement.
Just recently I had a large frame that came into my studio, and repairs had been completed with pieces of plastic dinner plates that were cemented to the frame with roofing tar! What I initially saw were unsatisfactory repairs covered in gold spray paint.
There is also a situation I come across frequently where the object had a small amount of damage, but amateur restoration tends to be larger than it needs to be. You end up with a 7-inch black eye on an object with just a quarter-inch of damage. Then my work is much larger and more complicated than it needed to be.
What are some interesting objects you have conserved?
I provide regular conservation maintenance to "The Three Servicemen" monument on the National Mall. It's very interesting to maintain outdoor sculpture over the course of years.
The surfaces of outdoor sculptures have independent lives. They have life spans. They are constantly affected by the environment.
A specific spot on a bronze sculpture, for example, will have an anomalous inclusion in the casting that causes the same problem to recur predictably. When I am responsible to revisit an outdoor sculpture that I have to maintain, I develop relationships with that patina. I feel like I am visiting old friends and giving them the specific attention they need.
I also was asked to work on a delightful series of small, 10-inch sculptures that were originally models for the ghosts in The Haunted Mansion at Disney World. That was before everything that was made was perceived as a collectible.
While they were perfect and beautiful, they weren’t meant to hold up for 40 years. That was rewarding for me to be on their team and help them survive another 40 years.
How broad is your range as an object conservator?
Part of this profession is the commitment to not step outside your area of expertise and get in over your head. I collaborate with specialists, or I will simply refer the entire project to another conservator who is a specialist with that material.
I have specific focuses in my practice. I work with plaster sculpture, frames and mirrors and the gold leaf surfaces on those, as well as outdoor sculpture. I don’t touch paintings, paper or textiles. I don’t work much with furniture.
What might a typical week or month look like for you?
In a typical month, I probably work on one or two on-site, usually outdoor, sculpture projects. I need to return to the same project for numerous sequential sessions.
I'll also work on five or six projects in my studio, which has work tables set up where you leave a project and come back to it. I also have special rooms in my studio that are designed for specific types of work because of the ventilation systems and specific lighting needed.
How much of your work is local?
I have chosen to cut back on distant travel just because I don’t enjoy it and it’s not necessary. I have more work than I can complete in the Washington, D.C., to Petersburg corridor – 70 percent of my work is in the Richmond area, and I go to Northern Virginia frequently.
I do occasionally work in New York or Palm Beach, Fla., for clients with whom I have special relationships.
How does a conservator drum up business?
It’s almost entirely word of mouth. My clients are 50 percent institutions and 50 percent private, and I have never found it necessary to do advertising. I have all the projects I can handle based on referrals from institutions and other clients.
What type of research might you have to do for a project?
There is a very strong and important research side of the conservation field. Research conservators have a strong lab background. They are constantly publishing their findings, which are published and available online.
If I have questions about materials and methodology, it’s easy and enjoyable to find that online.
Are there any trends in object conservation?
The growing importance of professional art handlers has changed the field and made it much better for conservators.
Over the past 10 years, the freelance art handler profession has blossomed. They are set up to transport and handle the projects. We have several in Richmond now.
What are some common questions you are asked?
Many people initially express concern that their project will look "too new" after conservation. It will not. Get the images of shiny refinished furniture out of your head!
There usually is a range of reasonable and appropriate options for final appearance, somewhat separate from the actual conservation treatment. Historical collections and house museums depend on my knowledge of how antique objects should look, and providing an appropriate appearance might be my favorite part of the job.