Few viewers are conscious of what goes on behind the scenes to keep a museum’s collection not just intact but resistant to the unrelenting effects of time. But conservator and restorer Debra Dickinson knows. And when she took on her most recent assignment — to prepare a collection of Provincetown painter Philip Malicoat’s larger paintings for the current exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum — she assumed she was in familiar territory.
Generations of Cape Cod’s most definitive artworks have passed under her scalpel and magnifying glass, bringing with them the specific challenges — mold, humidity, salt, wood smoke — that the Cape imposes on local artifacts. And because Dickinson, who lives in Wellfleet, has worked on Philip Malicoat’s paintings for nearly three decades for family, private collectors, galleries, and museums, she says, “I now feel I know him personally.”
But while she is intimately familiar with Malicoat’s smaller paintings, Dickinson discovered that the condition of these larger works presented challenges she hadn’t encountered before in his work.
Malicoat was a seminal player among a wave of young art students who, in the late 1920s, inspired by painter Charles Webster Hawthorne’s expertise, attitude on life, and exotic choice of residence, followed him to Provincetown.
Although caught in the throes of the Great Depression, Provincetown held a rich confluence of advantages for artists like Malicoat. This village of Portuguese fishing families, not yet too alarmed by a growing influx of strangers, offered an intimate, self-made community, a dramatic natural beauty ready to inform one’s imagery, and, being at the edge of the continent, a remoteness that invited freedom from cultural conventions.
Malicoat, along with other artists, stayed on, developing their artwork, raising families, and becoming enmeshed in the fabric of the town.
Decades later, the studio where Dickinson is restoring his paintings has become a labyrinth of pathways narrowed by stacks of canvases as big as small sails.
In the 1960s and ’70s, when most of Malicoat’s bigger pictures were painted, artists regularly used commercially manufactured materials of varying quality and chemical components, which accelerated their deterioration.
“I’ve worked on paintings from the 1500s that were sturdier than the early paintings from the Provincetown school,” Dickinson says. In earlier times, paints were hand-crafted with pure minerals and fewer mysterious ingredients.
She discovered pigments in the larger paintings — not commonly used in Malicoat’s smaller pieces — that were causing a whitish haze to bloom on parts of a painting’s surfaces. She knew this was created by “fatty acid exudates,” which over time get chemically drawn up from within the paint to the surface, creating a fogging effect on darker colors.
Dickinson tracked down a colleague in Europe who had been involved in a successful rescue of a large body of badly deteriorated paintings by Edvard Munch. Because his works had been stored and neglected for years at Munch’s old studio in a small coastal town south of Oslo, the paintings had been subjected to physical, chemical, and environmental exposures nearly identical to those found in Provincetown — and had suffered similar effects.
A conservative approach, and the right solvents — “some common ones used to correct a problem can actually make it worse,” she says, would need to be deployed.
With 13 canvases in her care, Dickinson retouched over 1,000 tiny holes burned into the paint by spider and fly excretions and tackled plenty of embedded Cape Cod mold. This was exacting work, as various molds respond differently to different cleaning agents, with multiple species sometimes growing on the same painting.
In the end, Dickinson’s treatment plan focused at least as much on protecting the pieces from future decay as it did on bringing back as much of the paintings’ vibrancy and depth as possible.
The solution suits Dickinson just fine. Her goal, she says, has always been to both conserve and restore the works she is entrusted with, honoring natural changes time has added while slowing down its more destructive effects — to strike a balance between the two.