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Sherry Phillips, AGO art conservator, on what it's like restoring Van Gogh


It’s one thing to be entrusted with precious artifacts, but quite another to be in charge of taking them apart and putting them back together. Since 1996 Sherry Phillips has been tasked with preserving and restoring priceless works of art as the contemporary art conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario. From cleaning a Mark Rothko painting to deconstructing and reassembling Claes Oldenburg’s “Floor Burger” (which is exactly what it sounds like), Phillips has had privileged access to invaluable works of art. You can currently find her restoring Simon Starling’s “Infestation Piece: Musseled Moore” (a sculpture covered in real zebra mussels) in a special public exhibition at the AGO.

Canadian Business: How did you get into art conservation?

Sherry Phillips: I have a master’s degree in art conservation from Queen’s University, and when I finished I had done one of my internships [at the AGO]. I was at another institution doing a short contract and received a phone call from the AGO saying they had an opening in their registration department. I applied and worked as deputy registrar for a few years, and then eventually a position opened up in the conservation department and I was able to move into it. A little stroke of luck, being in the right place at the right time.

What’s the biggest misconception about your job?

People get a lot of their conceptions from the movies. There have been these representations in literature and cinema [e.g. Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters], and they’re not entirely wrong. But it does glamourize the day-to-day. We’re not always finding or discovering unknown masters – that happens rarely. Most of it is preservation-based.

Do you have a typical day?

No, I don’t, which is one of the things that really appeals to me about it. There’s very little repetition. One week I was in offsite storage, and we were looking at a new storage method for a car, a Trans-Am, which is an artwork. I was working with one fellow here who happened to be a mechanic in a past life. We were draining fluids, making documentation, and we were basically moving this car from one storage area to another. I went from this 1970s Trans-Am to a Puma 550 robot arm, which is part of an artwork. I was working with an artist and had to find the programming expertise. And then the next day I might be working on this massive 300-foot-long knitwork. So every day’s different. It’s very cool.

Do you have moments when you realize you’ve got a priceless object in your hands?

It’s a little mind-blowing. When I went through school I trained as a painting conservator. At one point I had the opportunity to work on the Mark Rothko here, and I was just thinking, holy cow, this is Mark Rothko! I have this very privileged position here where I work with the art incredibly closely, almost closer than the artist in some ways because I’m breaking it down into minute little sections. At one point I was working on a small Van Gogh that we have here, and there on the edge is a thumbprint in what was wet paint at one point. I have no idea if it was the artist, but it’s kind of fun to let your mind wander there.