Art Meets Science: Exhibit documents retablo restoration by NMSU art conservation students

November 25, 2013 admin

Article By Jessica J. Savage

Retablos Exhibit 3 It takes the alchemy of art and science, using a dash each of history, archeology, biology, chemistry and physics to restore 19th Century folk art retablos, according to the campus museum conservation program director, as well as a patient, methodical and steady hand.

Speaking during a tour of the exhibit “Conserving Tradition: Caring for the NMSU Retablo Collection,” Silvia Marinas-Felinar explained the art and science of restoring any one of the university’s collection of 1,700 retablos, the largest in the United States.

The process of retablo restoration as performed by students in the Art Laboratory, along with before and after comparisons, is the focus of one of three exhibits that runs through Dec. 21, 2013 at the Art Gallery of New Mexico State University located in D. W. Williams Hall. “It’s the only student restoration program in the country,” said gallery Interim Director Stephanie Taylor.

Retablos Exhibit 6A special reception celebrating Professor Silvia and her students in the program will be held from 6 – 8 p.m., Wednesday, December 4. The two other exhibits are Linda Vallejo’s Make ‘em all Mexican and Post Racial U.S.? A National Juried Exhibition. A talk on the exhibits is held from 1 – 2 p.m., Saturday, December 7. Curator of Arts at the Albuquerque Museum of Arts & History, Andrew Connors, will discuss the jurying process from 5 – 6 p.m., Tuesday, December 3.

Students studying museum conservation don’t actually restore a retablo until they’ve taken several classes covering the theory and technique of restoration before they finally get to practice a little alchemy in the Problems in Studio course. The first step of the restoration process is documenting the current state of the retablo or any art object, however documentation takes place throughout the entire process. Students are often amazed at the progress when they look back at the original photo before restoration began, Silvia said.

Retablos Exhibit 5Next students test all the paints used, likely made by the artist, photograph with infrared and ultraviolet cameras, and study the object’s history. “It’s like a doctor exam,” Silvia explains. “You take a background history, order blood tests and x-rays, gather all the data – then you know what the best treatment is.”

Retablos have been painted on tin-coated iron sheets which corrode easily, and so the logical place to start is almost always to remove corrosion on the back of the retablo, and then applying inhibitors to stabilize and protect the iron core. “We can’t completely get rid of corrosion but we can slow it down,” Silvia said.

Retablos Exhibit 2Sometimes damage to a retablo indicates how it was used and becomes part of its value. Silvia showed gallery patrons a retablo with paint missing from the bottom corner, exposing the tin surface. Testing revealed that the retablo had been damaged by a candle, so it was assumed its image was used for devotion. Many retablos aren’t completely restored to preserve an aged look. “There’s a lot of decision-making in conservation,” Silvia said, “Each piece is unique.”

Retablos Exhibit 4The museum collection and exhibit contains retablos donated since the 1960s and created during the 19th Century in Mexico during revolutions that often kept parishioners at home. “It was a time of turmoil,” Silvia said. “It was hard to go to church, or there were no priests visiting.” Inexpensive materials, combined with the need for home altars and shrines, led to the creation of devotional images of saints and religious figures of worship, such as Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Other retablos, known as ex-votos often covered the inner wall entrances to churches  in Mexico. They depict scenes of loved ones kneeling in prayer over a sick bed or making petitions to saints, and represent prayers or a gift of gratitude to God for a miracle. In this way retablos are art, history and archeology mixed together. “You can learn information all about another people,” Silvia said, “by seeing how they dressed, what their rooms looked like.”

Retablos Exhibit 1Dozens of years later, students are finding the grime on devotion images is often from the oil on human skin because devotees touched and kissed the image of the saints and religious figures they were praying to. “We don’t go too far,” said student Whitney Jacobs. “We keep the integrity of the history. We try to keep everything the same.”

The gallery is open from noon to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and open from 6 – 8 p.m. Wednesday evenings. Contact the Gallery Front Desk at (575) 646-5423 or the Gallery Administrator at (575) 646-2545. Email at

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