Southwestern Senior Gains Rare Undergraduate Experience at Menil Collection
It was the summer between her sophomore and junior year at Southwestern when Taylor Bailey, Class of 2017, found her passion and career path: art conservation.
“My original plan was to do art therapy, but after thinking about it, I don’t think I could go home after a therapy session and turn that part of me off,” says Bailey. “I decided that’s not going to work out for me, so I needed to figure something else out.”
It took a bit of researching and soul searching, but as soon as she realized art conservation was an option, she was sold.
“I was initially an art and psychology major, so I dropped psychology and picked up art history,” says Bailey. “I had never taken any art history courses, but knew that’s what I wanted to do, so I was going to jump in. It did change a lot of my degree and graduation plan.”
Another big change for Bailey was getting up to speed on required chemistry hours.
“There’s a lot of science involved as much of it is pH based,” says Bailey. “We use chemicals even when we are just cleaning [artwork]. You have to know what could take off a layer of varnish, but not bother paint underneath, or what would take off coffee stains, but not something else.”
As Bailey transitioned, Professor of Art Victoria Star Varner was by her side to guide her through the process.
“Taylor is among the most versatile and talented students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching,” says Varner. “She produces intelligent, well considered, inventive and engaging works as an artist.”
This mentorship is how her career-boosting opportunity at the Menil Collection took shape.
“She helped me with curriculum, but almost immediately said, ‘You should talk with Brad Epley at the Menil, I had him as a student,’” says Bailey. “And she put us in touch.”
Southwestern alumnus Brad Epley ’91 is Chief Conservator at the Menil Collection in Houston. Epley invited her there for an interview, gave her a tour, then offered her a one-of-a-kind internship, which she, of course, accepted.
“I’m immensely proud to have had both of them in my classroom,” says Varner. “This internship has a wonderful ‘pay it forward’ feel about it and is meaningful on many levels,” says Varner.
“I don’t think that this would have happened if I wasn’t at Southwestern,” says Bailey. “You don’t really get art conservation internships as an undergraduate.”
Bailey spent six weeks of the 2016 summer in Houston working alongside Epley, who describes her as “open and enthusiastic.”
“She has very good fine hand skills (which were also evident from her artwork portfolio) and a sensitivity to the different materials she was using, whether it was solvents, an adhesive or the paints used for retouching,” says Epley.
Epley assigned hands-on projects, including cleaning paintings and repairing damaged artwork.
“She had several condition report writing projects and demonstrated an ability to look closely at a painting and verbally describe the complex visual phenomena she was seeing.”
“Brad was awesome,” says Bailey. “I learned about the conservation process, we talked about objects conservation, I had readings—I learned something new every day.”
One of her favorite jobs was a preventative conservation project in which she made housing for an eight-foot-long Millenium Falcon sculpture. The inside housed more than 50 dollhouse-size pieces from an exhibition that took place at the Menil around the 1960s.
“All of these little pieces needed a home so that it could be transported for storage off-site because the thing is so gigantic,” says Bailey. “We made a box that would fit underneath the sculpture and keep all of its teeny, tiny little pieces safe. It sounds silly, but the box that I made is superb.”
The internship has also given Bailey the opportunity to earn more than 120 hours of hands-on art conservation experience.
“One of the biggest hurdles in gaining an interview and ultimately acceptance into graduate programs is the prerequisite of actual hands-on conservation treatment experience through internships,” says Epley.
Bailey will need at least 400 hours in order to pursue one of only three art conservation postgraduate programs nationwide—each only accept 10 students every year.
“At the Menil, we try to give interns an exposure to the full range of a conservator’s activities ranging from the hands-on treatment of paintings and sculptures, to the less obvious (but often more critical) tasks of properly housing artworks in storage, monitoring environmental conditions as well as regular maintenance.”
In addition to providing critical firsthand experience, the internship was both affirming and door-opening for Bailey.
“It gives me a place to stand back and say, ‘I’ve done this and I know that this is what I want to do,’” says Bailey. “You can go so many places just because everybody knows each other and it’s kind of like you’ve already been vetted.”
Bailey graduates in May, and has a full school schedule until the very end. She is grateful for the education and connections Southwestern has given her, and is eager to jump into her next hands-on art conservation opportunity.