Conserving a piece of Canada’s aviation history
When officials from the financially-strapped Canada’s Air and Space Museum (CASM) needed the services of a “top gun” art conservator, they knew exactly where to look.
In search of help to conserve a unique painting of the legendary Avro Arrow aircraft, their flight path carried them in 2011 straight to Queen’s campus and into the capable hands of the faculty and students of the Master of Art Conservation (MAC) program.
“The mandate of our not-for-profit museum includes a strong educational component,” says Robert Cohen, the CEO of the CASM. “So working with the students and faculty of the MAC program at Queen’s, which is superb, was a natural thing for us to do.”
Associate Prof. Barbara Klempan and second-year MAC student Mélanie Cloutier are now putting the finishing touches to almost three years of work they’ve done to conserve a 1958 oil painting of Avro Arrow. That futuristic all-Canadian military interceptor jet was scrapped by the penny-pinching Diefenbaker government in 1959. That ill-considered decision, one of the most controversial in the history of Canadian aviation, is still hotly debated today.
At the time, the government ordered the destruction of the prototypes of the planes, all plans, and any documentation relating to the Arrow. That included a series of eight paintings of the aircraft, including two done by the late artist-illustrator Don Watt (now renowned as one of this country’s greatest brand-creation pioneers). These artworks were promotional props used by the Avro reps who made sales calls around the world. “Fortunately, Watt’s paintings were saved from destruction, and many years later his widow acquired them and donated them to the CASM,” explains Klempan. Other donors, who acquired the other paintings, have also donated them to the museum.
The painting Mélanie Cloutier has been working to conserve with Barbara Klempan’s expert guidance, is a round artwork, that was painted on the rough side of a sheet of masonite, 71 cm in diameter. “It appears to have been stored in a damp environment because some of the paint had deteriorated and was coming off,” says Klempan.
The work to conserve the painting, painstaking and precise, called for special expertise, and that’s exactly what’s to be found in the MAC laboratory and work spaces.
The MAC is the only program of its type in Canada, and one of just a handful in North America. Although there are only four instructors – each of them an expert in particular area of conservation work – and only about two-dozen students in the program, it’s renowned for the high-quality of its grads, who are in demand and find work in galleries and museums worldwide. The MAC program rightly has been called “a jewel in the Queen’s crown”– albeit one that’s not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be.
“The Avro Arrow painting is a piece of Canada’s heritage, and as a conservation project it’s typical of the sort of thing that we like to take on,” Klempan says. “We have some amazingly gifted students, and they do amazing work.”