Saturday, January 1, 2011

Preserving Ceramic History

I am typing this on a holiday, a rare night off, and it just happens to be New Year's weekend. This time of year tends to put me in a reflective mood about the history of my ceramics, and hopes of the future of the art form. Lately, I have put thought into how to preserve and protect my ceramics from year to year, to decades, and beyond.

I admit it: it has been a hair over four years since I last dusted my collection and personal pottery archives. Many, many people have seen this in the interim, and most have been kind enough to not mention the state of my shelves. It takes four years for me to find both the courage and a block of days to take them out, individually dust, and inventory them. It's not that there are a lot of pieces; most would consider the size of my collection modest. The whole thing is barely equal in number to the major collectors' show strings, let alone their collections. For a little perspective, my entire show string averages five to seven pieces, roughly one per breed division.

The actual ceramic figure dusting is accomplished with cotton gloves and a large micro-fiber towel. The gloves prevent my leaving fingerprints on glossy ceramics. One of these useful towels can dust a small collection before needing to be washed. The shelves require the tough love of glass cleaner and either newsprint or paper towels. You'll get less lint if you clean glass with newsprint, but watch for the ink on your hands- don't touch white bisque right after that!

So... it takes days? really? Yes, because rushing always results in damage. A large chunk of that time is spent dusting each piece carefully, studying it, deciding how to thematically display, and yet accommodate the attrition of sold pieces and the appearance of new finds. Placement in the cabinet for items without bases is side-to-side, with foam pads at each end of the shelf, against the side walls, to brace the entire line in place. This method comes from my days collecting in California, with earthquakes and sonic booms making things interesting. More extreme preservation, such as storing items laying down in drawers, or upright with foam pads between each item, is certainly safe but not very pretty. I look at these items daily for reference and inspiration, so I had to come up with a compromise between safety and visibility. Only items that are firmly glazed to a base get to be displayed in profile. If I do this right, I will be happy with the arrangement for the next four or more years. So far, I have been happier and happier with each iteration.

This year, I have not been happy with the actual cabinet itself. I have watched over the months as the quarter-inch-thick safety glass shelves bowed under the strain of their five-foot stretch. They bounced and jiggled when the studio doors closed; horses literally danced with vibration from the air vacuator system, located two rooms over. The cabinet is safely screwed to the wall studs, but its components were a virtual donkey ride for the artworks. Then there was the issue of the shelf L-brackets, which had already served five decades under much heavier collectibles, with a previous owner. Metal fatigue shears and earthquake tales about these things made my stomach knot. The L-brackets needed to be replaced. They also threw shadows on my pottery, and generally looked ugly. Before:

My husband came up with a plan to drill holes in the solid oak walls, set bolts tightly fitted therein, and then cover the extended ends with hexagonal sleeves. The flat surface of the sleeve where glass rested was topped with a custom-cut piece of adhesive foam padding.

The next issue to be addressed was the shelves' bowing. I had seen how 1/2" thick glass store display shelves were supported in their centers with Plexiglass vertical "X" shapes. My husband designed laying "T" shapes and custom cut these plex supports for the entire cabinet. No more bow, and now all the shelves were solid as rock.

View from top shelf, looking down:

Not only did he fit the cabinet with all these stabilizing parts, but he also installed lighting in the top. The cabinet is not only less stressful to look at, it is easier to see what is inside it!

To label each pottery item, I use paper self-adhesive labels and a paper hole punch to make tiny round dots with identifying numbers. These cannot harm the finish nor the stability of the models. Each sticky dot goes on the bottom of one foot or the base, and corresponds to an inventory list. I include as much data as I know about the provenance of each item. Horrifyingly, shockingly, I do the entire first stage of this process with good, old-fashioned pen and paper. I am aware that there are more high-tech methods (I know I could make bar code stickers, but I don't want to) but I rather like the tedious nature of this method; it gives me more time to visit with each piece. Considering the hangtags I used to make, which were bulky and obscured my view of the sculptures, this dot thing is high tech.

To back up my personal accounts of the provenance of some pieces, I also collect paper ephemera linked to these items. This includes books, articles, printouts of closed online auctions, printed emails from former owners, photographs, even material relating to the (once) living portrait animal.

The unseen, but still important, part of collection protection is insurance. I highly recommend this to all collectors, regardless of location. Collectibles insurance is more readily available now, and some home policies can add on for it. If you do not own your home, get renter's insurance. Be sure to save your invoices when you buy at collector prices. If you watch prices realized of auctions and online sales, print out those of pertinence to the same items you own. The ephemera mentioned above can figure into proving the values of your collectibles. An inventory list, stored in a safe place, plus a copy stored off-site, is absolutely necessary.

Cabinet locks help ease one's mind when lots of guests are milling around or children are loose. You may feel icky about what visitors might think you think of them, but it's really nothing personal. You don't think they are going to run out with something under their coat; you just don't need something toppled over or mishandled out of curiosity. Some collectible ceramic pieces may be so unique or valuable that no parent would pay for the damage, even if little Johnny had just galloped it down to sharp nubs. Save yourself unnecessary strife and loss (and a lecture) and put a temporary lock on when visitors are in town.

Some collectors live in areas where they require home security systems in general, not just for their collections. The good news is that home insurance (assuming you've added a policy for your collection) offers discounted rates where a system is in use.

I want to see these artworks last well into the future, so steps must be taken to help preserve them. I am starting off the New Year with fresh display themes, glistening art, and relief in my heart for the stabilized cabinet. There is even a blank shelf now, waiting to be filled with my new work. What an inspiring way to start the year!

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