By Wendy Donahue, Tribune Newspapers
September 29, 2013
When superstorm Sandy swamped the East Coast last year, Heather Becker's crew performed triage in a warehouse outside of New York City as 2,000 pieces of artwork poured in from private and corporate collections.
And now calls are trickling in from flood-ravaged Boulder, Colo.
Mother Nature regularly provides referrals to The Conservation Center, a world-renowned art restoration firm in Chicago. And Becker, its CEO and owner, comes to the rescue. Her team of 24 has revitalized countless paintings, objects, textiles and furnishings damaged over the years by everything from raging wildfires in California to routine sunbathing on walls.
Although the business is 30 years old, the Conservation Center (theconservationcenter.com) recently celebrated its first anniversary at its 25,000-square-foot, LEED-certified headquarters on the West Side. Designed by Chicago's celebrated Studio Gang Architects, it boasts 16-foot ceilings, a state-of-the-art lab and sweeping industrial vistas — through UV-filtered windows, of course.
Becker, 46, joined the center, then in River North, as an administrative assistant 24 years ago, out of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied painting and art history. Founder Barry Bauman mentored her into a takeover of the center 10 years ago.
Never restoring art herself, Becker shuttles between the lab and her desk, shared with a pair of Chinese ceramic cats. Her office displays her own figurative paintings — she's represented by the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in River North — and her bookshelves include the volume she produced on Chicago's murals, "Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943" (Chronicle Books). Here, in an edited transcript of a conversation, she reflects on her life's many works.
Q: How did you get into art conservation?
A: I was in Rome to study and saw a conservator working on a mural in a chapel. I liked the marriage of art and science.
Q: How do you find time to create your own artwork and run a business?
A: I am very disciplined with all of the things I love doing. Through studying yoga, whatever I'm doing in the moment, I'm focused.
Q: What is one memorable story attached to a piece that has come through your lab?
A: A gentleman called and asked a lot of questions. When he came in, he had two postcards that had come out of a concentration camp, a family member's last written words. This is why they were so precious — priceless, really — to him. Those experiences allow you to see how art impacts lives. People aren't attached to just these objects; these objects carry messages and history. Witnessing that daily is one of the coolest parts of our job.
Q: What are two secrets of your success?
A: Being humble is very important in our industry. You can have 40-plus years of experience, but if one time you are a little too aggressive, you can permanently affect the piece. Having tremendous respect is something a conservator never loses touch with. You also have to have a temperament for collaboration. You can have a postcard or a masterpiece, and not every person can be great at restoring both. We encourage a cross-pollination of knowledge; that only makes you better at what you do.
Q: In a field of preservation, was it hard to move to a new site?
A: It fosters a new energy. In our field, tools and techniques change. It's similar to medicine. Our field is never stagnant. We always have to change, versus living in the past, to stay relevant. That's true no matter your environment.
Q: For this new center, how did you choose architect Jeanne Gang's firm?
A: I knew Jeanne through a women's network called The Chicago Network. We started talking about my planned move, and a light bulb went off. I believe in meeting people you can be impactful for and who also can be impactful for you. I'm a big supporter of mentorship and feedback. At the same time, I follow my intuition.
Q: How important is yoga?
A: I practice about seven hours a week, at 5:30 each morning. I learned about yoga from my art. When I was young, drawing was my escape, because I was very shy. That is where I learned to meditate. Art provides a level of concentration where your brain goes to another place, and I had experienced that extensively as a young artist. Meditation drew me to yoga. My practice has helped with the management of decision-making and to continually find a positive way of looking at things. I believe that phrase "biography becomes biology." We all have these choices, and it makes us who we are when we make these choices. Richard Freeman, a philosopher and yoga instructor, I follow his leadership as well.
Q: Who are some of your other mentors?
A: I started an advisory board after I bought the company, and so many nuggets of wisdom have come from those 11 people. Marshall Field V; Diane Swonk, an economist; and Christiane Fischer-Harling, an art insurance expert. … I keep going back to a series of relationships that I nurture that are very reciprocal. I never would have gotten here on my own.
Q: What's one lesson you heed from childhood?
A: When you commit to something, good things happen. When you can follow that, which I think really relates to intuition, you can't really get into a bad pattern.
Q: Who's your favorite artist?
A: Giacometti. His work was so revolutionary and continues to be.
Q: What's your favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon?
A: Hanging out with my partner, Howard, pruning plants and reading. I listen to a lot of chanting, or I open the sliding door and listen to the birds. I have a lot of bird feeders, and we have finches who visit. I don't watch television and haven't for 15 years. I also am a cat lover. I have taken in feral cats.
Q: What are yourfavorite tools?
A: Hands and eyes. Those are pretty awesome tools.
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