June Poticar Dalisay
June Poticar Dalisay is President of Artemis Art Restoration Services, Inc. A Fine Arts graduate of the University of the Philippines, she also serves as Vice President of the Erehwon Arts Foundation, and has been an active member of other artistic and women’s organizations. She is now training younger Filipino conservators who can continue her work when she retires. She is married to the writer Jose Dalisay.
It was a life-changing experience—not just for me, but also for many other Filipinos who found new careers in art restoration and conservation, thanks to the capable and patient tutelage of our Spanish instructors, who also became our friends. Since then, I have had the privilege of restoring works by some of the Philippines’ foremost artists—from Juan Luna and Fernando Amorsolo to Fernando Zobel and Vicente Manansala, among others—and I now lead my own restoration company, all because of that initial apprenticeship with our Spanish mentors. Our professional relationship blossomed into a personal friendship that allowed us to understand each other as Filipinos and as Spaniards, with all our quirks and mysteries, but also with all the commonalities we shared.
Our classes were held at the National Museum of the Philippines. Aside from lectures, there were practical applications and field trips to different institutions. It was during the field trips that we were able to get to know our Spanish teachers better.
Around 20 individuals from different government institutions around the country participated in the program. Everyone was excited to see the Spanish teachers. We were surprised when they came in through the tall wide doors of the high-ceilinged room. They were young and pretty! The men were giggling and talking in low voices and we women had to hush them up and remind them to keep quiet. I guess they were mesmerized by the statuesque Señorita Patricia Murillo and charming Señorita Cristina Bartolomé.
There were difficult procedures that tested our patience, and mending a tear was one. In my case, Cristina required me to lay and glue threads of the same material as my canvas. Each thread followed the horizontal weave of the canvas cloth. I had to use a pair of tweezers to pick up the thin threads and arrange them in a straight parallel position over the tear. She was very patient and meticulous, and made sure that we were thinking and behaving like real conservators. She would go around and check our work and point out our mistakes and when we could not follow, she would revert to Spanish, and we would all laugh.
The lectures were long but we learned many things, despite the inevitable language barriers. Some of the participants could understand Spanish, and they would supply the equivalent word in English when the two young teachers needed help to express an idea. So we not only learned conservation principles but we also began to remember the simple Spanish we had been taught in college.
The program was composed of several short courses, such as the history of art, properties of materials and how they react to changes in environment, factors of deterioration, and conservation principles, among others. We had outings that strengthened the bonds between us students and teachers. On a trip to Baguio, we visited the local museums to view the ethnographic items that were made by the tribal people of the Cordillera. Our teacher Gracia Prado fell in love with the woven fabrics, woodcarvings, antique beads, and heirloom necklaces fashioned by the local tribes. Gracia was a young, pretty, and bright teacher, who handled the course on conservation and restoration of polychrome wooden sculpture. On the other hand, Cristina and Patricia were amazed by Manila’s nightlife. Sometimes we went out to savor the lights, sounds, and Filipino cuisine in Malate, a place not far from their hotel. We introduced them to chicharon, the crispy pork skin, and Pinoy barbecue.
The first half of the program focused on providing the participants with the necessary foundation in conservation, before introducing us to the more difficult and complicated course that involved the use of chemicals and complicated invasive procedures. These procedures meant direct physical handling of damaged artworks. I was very eager to flex my muscles, and to challenge myself in this more interesting part of the program.
The second half of the program was an advanced course in the restoration of easel paintings. This involved learning the proper preparation of canvas, starting from washing, ironing and stretching on a properly constructed wooden stretcher, priming the surface with organic glue, and the application of gesso. Each participant was required to prepare a canvas, paint an image on it, and later, inflict some damage on the painted canvas. Some of us made pretty artworks and we did not want to tear or punch holes on our work ! Patricia and Cristina were furious with us and were muttering in Spanish and at the same time laughing because we refused and were afraid to even make small scratches on our work. We eventually mustered the necessary courage and with eyes closed inflicted physical damage on the canvas. I created a tear on mine because I wanted to learn how to address such a major concern.
My favorite part of the course, which I thought was easy, was retouching. I had some advantage over the others since I studied fine arts and was a practicing watercolorist. The exercise in retouching involved tearing a hole on a colored page or picture from a magazine. A piece of white paper was attached under the hole and retouching proceeded by applying short vertical strokes on the white area using watercolor, a technique called tratteggio. Amy, a close buddy and a graduate of chemical engineering, had a bit of difficulty like the others, but eventually she managed to show something acceptable using the technique.
Restoring an artwork is not simply repairing physical damage seen on the surface of a painting. A restorer must develop a critical and scientific mind and most of all an understanding of what the original intentions were of the artist. Every artwork is unique and carries in it a valuable piece of history. A restorer must respect the artwork and even love it the way the owner loved it.
The philosophy I learned and have observed as a restorer is that every artwork, whether big or small, must be given importance and respect. Our Spanish teachers emphasized the importance of understanding a painting through thorough analysis of the cloth or canvas, the construction of the wooden auxiliary frame on which the painting is stretched, and the condition of the varnish, paint layer, and decorative frame. Tests are conducted to determine the solubility of all colors. A solubility test is conducted to determine correct procedures in consolidating and strengthening the paint layer. A small piece of cotton wrapped around a bamboo skewer is dipped in different solutions and chemicals. A small area (usually in corners or edges) is tested using small circular motion. The tip of the cotton is checked to see whether the paint is soluble and sticks to the cotton. All of these tests are recorded to serve as guides in cleaning and consolidating the cracked or blistered surface.
Every pertinent detail is recorded and photographed. An intervention plan is designed based on the condition of the painting. Materials and tools are chosen and assembled and prepared before actual restoration commences.
The time came when we were finally given the most coveted secret of all, the formulas for mixing chemicals! Everyone was excited and eager to write every word that came out of our teacher’s mouth. Actually, we were quiet and were focused on the subject matter. We were given a list of safe and most toxic chemicals and solutions that may be used according to the condition of a painting. I still keep my notes and the list and when I bring them out, I am transported to that time when I was an eager student, listening intently and writing down every word that my Spanish teachers uttered.
I established my own art conservation company, the Artemis Art Restoration Services, Inc., in 1999 and have expanded my practice to include the inventory of big private collections. My team of eight conservators continues to work with me and they contribute immensely to the successful completion of various projects, such as the restoration of four murals of Jaime de Guzman for the Cultural Center of the Philippines, a job we completed in just four weeks.
My practice of restoration has led me to certain discoveries and I now use non-toxic ingredients to remove stubborn and deeply ingrained dirt and old discolored and hard-to-remove varnish. I have discovered new sources of local conservation materials, which have lowered the cost of restoration. I have also developed my own techniques in closing and flattening cracks, softening and correcting dents, and patching tears and holes. I will continue to hone my skills and discover new techniques to improve my work to better serve not only my clients but also to contribute to the preservation of Philippine art and culture—all thanks to the generous mentorship of our Spanish teachers.