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Charly Haley, Published May 11 2013

NDSU professors bring science to art restoration

FARGO – Art and science are often thought of as opposites, but a few professors at North Dakota State University might argue they’re more like two sides of the same coin.

Professors in the department of coatings and polymeric materials have been working different avenues of art restoration.

Professor Stuart Croll discussed his research on paint and painting restoration last week, when he lectured “Science and Art Conservation” in the last of this year’s NDSU Science Cafe series.

Croll studies “the chemistry and physics of paint,” which includes how paint can degrade, what ingredients are in old paints, “what happens to the ingredients when the paint forms a solid, and how does the composition of paint affect its properties.”

Croll’s work has been enough to get him noticed by art museums and conservators nationwide, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Getty in Los Angeles.

While Croll himself is not an art conservator, he has fielded questions on art conservation and restoration from places like the Getty and Smithsonian in the past eight or nine years, he said.

He described their correspondence as “sporadic, but continuous,” and said he got an email from the Getty a few months ago about the paint on an outdoor sculpture.

While researching for his Science Cafe lecture, he found that there aren’t any local art conservators, the closest are in Minneapolis.

Like Croll, his fellow department of coatings and polymeric materials professor Gordon Bierwagen has worked with art conservation, but his focus is on bronze statues. The department’s Center for Surface Protection, of which Bierwagen is the director, has patented BronzeShield, a covering to preserve bronze statues and fixtures.

BronzeShield, was invented in the mid-2000s by Tara Shedlosky, a former NDSU graduate student. It is now being marketed to conservators nationally by a company called Elinor Specialty Coatings, run by NDSU’s Center for Surface Protection associate director, Dante Battocchi.

The difference between BronzeShield and other protective coatings for bronze art is that it lasts for four to five years instead of two. BronzeShield is already being used by about 25 to 30 conservators in the U.S., Battocchi said.

The department faced some new challenges working on the coating for bronze art, Bierwagen said.

“We usually work on coatings that we hope never come off,” he said. Artwork usually requires anything added to the work to be removable, he said. “So, there was a different set of rules for the art field.”

Some of the department’s other work involves studying and developing coatings for everything from aircrafts and ships to food cans. Working with art is only a very small part of the department’s work, Croll said.

Bierwagen said he has enjoyed his work with art, partially because the conferences he’s been to for it are different from others he’s attended.

But Croll said art and science aren’t as different as one might think.

“I think there’s a lot of commonality. They’re in the same spectrum, perhaps just on different ends of the spectrum,” he said. “(Artists are) very bright people that have to investigate an aspect of the universe that physicists don’t, or mathematicians don’t.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311