As a graduate research assistant at the Blanton, I had the unique opportunity to speak with Ephraim Jose, the conservator responsible for preparing the works in our exclusive presentation of Into the Sacred City: Tibetan Buddhist Deities from the Theos Bernard Collection. During multiple phone calls, Ephraim shared with me details about his conservation process, and this blog post provides highlights of those conversations. Join us for his lecture on Restoring the Bernard Collection, Thursday, Sept. 20 at 6 p.m.
— Emily Cayton
Emily: What does the present state of an object tell you about its history?
Ephraim: Most thangkas are used during rituals or prayers, and are hung in temples. These temples are not climate controlled, so the paintings are exposed to the elements like humidity, temperature changes, and insects. When hung for ritual purposes, an altar table would be present. Ceremonial incense and yak butter lamps would be burning in close proximity to a thangka, slowly layering soot and dirt onto the surface. Thangkas in particular are rolled and unrolled, and this contributes to changes. In temples, thangkas are used in daily ritual. When rolling or unrolling a thangka, horizontal cracks in the painting appear. Also, after a thangka is rolled, it may be stored in a box with many other thangkas stored on top of it. This grouping of paintings in one area may also make the thangka more vulnerable to insects or rodents.
The mandalas in the exhibition were never mounted so they are very fragile. These mandala paintings were done on silk, which is unusual due to the cost of the material. Silk is more fragile than other textiles, making it necessary to back these with starched paper for stability. Some paintings on silk become black over time due to the use of iron and natural minerals to dye the silk. Iron begins to rust and change color; malachite, used for greens, deteriorates very quickly.
Emily: Thangkas are composite objects, including a central painting mounted to various textiles. How do you begin the process of conservation, given the multiple components?
Ephraim: The process of creating, and conserving, a thangka involves many steps. I measure the central painting first, and then measure the surrounding elements to help prevent stress such as buckling, pulling or stretching. Sometimes the silk borders and mountings are too small, due to shrinking over time, and need to be replaced.
In order to remove the silks, each piece is carefully separated from the central painting and surrounding silks. These silks are cleaned and resized in hopes of being reincorporated into the finished, conserved thangka. If the original silks are in too poor of a condition, new silks featuring auspicious symbols or patterns relevant to Buddhism from China or Japan are used. I dye these red, yellow, or blue, and conduct other treatments to age the silks.
The central painting is cleaned, stretched, and measured in order to ensure the correct mounting sizes for the surrounding fabrics. After cleaning, I consolidate the loose mineral pigments by applying thin layers of animal hide glue made from a mixture of fish, whale, pig and cowhides. This glue is a more refined substance, making it clearer in color and less attractive to insects. I apply the glue to each color individually, with some colors needing more than five layers. Then I apply vegetable colors with a water base, attempting to match the original mineral colors that have oxidized and darkened over time.
Emily: How does the concept of impermanence, a major teaching in Buddhism, relate to conservation processes?
Ephraim: I don’t make something last forever, rather it is my job to make it last longer. It is important to conserve and display these works of art so that more people are able to experience them. I teach monks in Bhutan how to handle and store thangkas. For example, when rolling, unrolling, or using a thangka, avoid touching the central painting and roll the thangka loosely. I provide monks with hundreds of tubes for storing the thangkas in order to keep them safe while sharing a box with other objects that could possibly crush the paintings.