January 15, 2019 - 12:42 PM

Team Spotlight: Textile Conservation Lab

By Rebecca Merrill

Those who visit the Cathedral will have seen Cathedral's tapestry sets The Life of Christ and The Acts of the Apostles. What you might not know is that the reason we all enjoy those works is because of the hard-working and dedicated group of people who work in the Cathedral's Textile Conservation Lab. These 8 professionals conserve textiles of all kinds belonging to leading museums, private collectors, and clients concerned with one or more family pieces.

In today's Staff Spotlight, we'll learn a little more about this team!

(Pictured from left to right: Krystyna Dobrowolski, Ligia M. Fernandez, Zoey Hasselbring, Marlene Eidelheit, Anna Szalecki, Anna Szalecki, Valerie Soll, Jamie Casbon (Not pictured: Bari Falese))

Marlene Eidelheit, Director, Textile Conservation Laboratory
As director of the Textile Lab since 1992, I’ve seen the Lab evolve and grow in various ways with the types of projects we do and how we may approach them. With our core of conservators and admin remaining steady for over the past 2 decades, we have maintained the mission of caring for the Cathedral’s precious possessions – the Barberini Life of Christ tapestry set made for a Pope and a related set of the Acts of the Apostles originally designed by Raphael for the Sistine chapel. In between we have been fortunate to work on other fantastic textiles—historic and contemporary—from other marvelous collections around the country.

What is your favorite project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
There have been many but my biggest thrill was to see the Barberinis completed, exhibited and finally having their opportunity to be seen in not just one but two great settings so they may tell their fascinating story. This could not have been accomplished without the massive dedication and contribution of everyone currently in the Lab—I am indebted to them—and to all the others in the Cathedral and those that worked with us and came before us, including the appreciated input from a stream of interns we have mentored through the years.

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
While I’ve been lucky enough to work in some wonderful places: Boston’s Gardner Museum in the 70’s; antique dealers in Florence, Italy during the 80’s followed by NY’s Museum of Natural History, still after 26 years here, when I walk from the Lab through the sacristy side door and into the Cathedral I still get a rush of inspiration and awe that something so old and glorious could seem so stunning and breathtaking each time I cross the threshold. On the other end of the spectrum there is one flowering plant on the pulpit green, a fritillaria that blooms for about a week every spring that is a little gem, straight out of a tapestry!

Jamie Casbon, Assistant Textile Conservator
I developed my love of history growing up in Europe, the son of a doctor in the Air Force. I studied fashion design initially but became interested in textile conservation while interning at the Museum of the City of New York. I first started at the Textile Conservation Lab as an intern as a part of the Fashion and Textile Studies graduate program at FIT and have been a staff member since 2012. I’ve also done work for the Brooklyn Museum, Museum of the City of New York, and MoMA.

What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
One of the most difficult projects I've worked on at the Lab was a livery coat that was worn by an enslaved person from a collection in New Orleans. The coat had been very damaged by pests and the entire lining had to be recreated. There were many holes across the coat that had to either be backed by a matching fabric or hand dyed wool felt. A custom mannequin was also built for it. Both the challenges of the conservation work and the difficult history the coat represented made it a really fascinating project.

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
I love the Biblical Garden. It's a beautiful and peaceful place to take a break and have lunch. I always take friends there, especially in the spring when all the plants and trees are blossoming.

Krystyna Dobrowolski, Administrative Assistant
I’ve been working at the Textile Conservation Lab as an administrative assistant since 1999 maintaining accounts payable, accounts receivable, billing, and prepare monthly, quarterly and annual TCL earned income and contract reports. I keep the Lab running smoothly by ordering office and conservation supplies. I’m originally from Poland and hold a master’s degree in Economics from Warsaw School of Economics.

What is your favorite part of the Cathedral?
I love to attend the Cathedral events and concerts, specifically the Paul Winter Summer Solstice. My favorite place on the Close is the Biblical Garden, where I enjoy having lunch surrounded by nature and peacocks. Phil is my favorite peacock. He’s a unique white peacock, the most admired and photographed by visitors.

Bari Falese, Senior Conservator
I’ve studied and worked in museums and conservation for many years, beginning with my time at SUNY Albany where I earned a BA in Art and Chinese Studies while working at the University Art Museum and completing a conservation internship. From there, I went on to earn an MA in Studio Art and an MA in Museum Studies. I worked at The Newark Museum and studied textile conservation at FIT, which brought me to the Cathedral as in intern and turned into a part-time job. Since 2001, I have also been self-employed as a museum specialist assisting small museums with their exhibit revivals among other things. A highlight of my experiences was in Tibet in the summer of 2002 when I conducted a training for Tibetan stewards and their artifact collection of nomadic life. The training goal was to create and install the entire collection into a new museum in two months in Yushu, Chinghai Province. The project was completed on the very last day of my visa.

What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
The most interesting project I worked on at our Lab was the Kiswah, a gift from the Saudi Arabian delegation to the U.N. The piece was immense and required lots of steps. All of us in the Lab worked collaboratively and the teamwork was great. The final installation required rising up on lifts over 25 feet high, which was scary because I am very uncomfortable being up at such heights. Entering the U.N. was an adventure each time—meeting the liaisons and all the people who supported our efforts. The best part was standing back and admiring the completed installation and knowing the Kiswah was restored and returned to its place of honor.

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
There are several favorites for me at the Cathedral but I think the top one is the gardens. Birds love the fountain in the Biblical Garden and springtime is so serene in that little garden full of flowers. Every day I walk onto the Close, I go very slowly to find what has changed in the central garden. There is something special for every season. My heart is enriched by this gift of plants and flowers that are so well cared for. Some days the peacocks are calling or shivering their tails for an extra added touch.

Ligia M. Fernandez, Senior Conservator
I have a diverse interest in various forms of textile arts, ranging from Pre-Columbian archaeological textiles, Chinese silks, and Indonesian batik and ikat; my main passion has always been European tapestries. For the past twenty-eight years, I have dedicated my study and work to the field of tapestry conservation. I am fortunate to have been exposed to the traditional tapestry restoration methods in Europe through my study in the Evelyne d'Or Tapestry Workshop, Aubusson, France—as well as the more innovative techniques in America through a two-year work contract at the Metropolitan Museum and my work experience at the Cathedral. During this time, I have conserved more than a hundred tapestries, and I have been involved in the preparation of many tapestry displays and exhibition especially the Cathedral collections.

What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
One of the most challenging projects I’ve worked on at the Cathedral has been Transfiguration from the Barberini Collection. Cleaning the faces of the figures and making Jesus’s face alive was amazing. I love it!

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
The Cathedral hosts many events I like, and on the grounds I love seeing the bust of Arnold and the peacocks. They’ve always been a part of us at the Lab, but not one is better than the other. They are all 3 beautiful and friendly.

Zoey Hasselbring, Assistant Textile Conservator
I’m a recent graduate in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Fashion and Textile program with a focus on conservation. Though I’ve finished coursework, I’m still working on my thesis project. I recently started working at the Textile Lab after interning over the Summer. I’ve loved having the opportunity to learn more about working with tapestry and contemporary flat textiles, as most of my projects at FIT were garments.

What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
One of the most interesting and challenging projects I’ve worked on so far is an embroidery with a painted silk ground. So far I’ve only worked to propose a course of treatment for it, which has been quite challenging because areas of the painted silk are peeling away from the canvas which holds the embroidery. It’s both challenging and interesting because it requires research into other fields of conservation (like paintings) to find the best course of treatment.

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
My favorite textile in the Cathedral’s collection is the Barberini Map of the Holy Land tapestry, which was on view for the special exhibition in 2017. However, my favorite piece on permanent display are the La Farge stained glass windows in the Chapel of St. Saviour. I love the use of color and thickness of late nineteenth century stained glass which makes the windows textural in appearance.

Valerie Soll, Senior Textile Conservator
I began working in the Textile Conservation Laboratory as a volunteer in 1993 and became a full time conservator in 1995. My background is in weaving and ceramics and was introduced to conservation while working on a ceramics project on a dig in Turkey. Since 2004, I’ve taught in the Fashion and Textile Studies program of the Graduate Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
My reflexive answer to the above question is: the next one coming up. Each project offers a chance to really look at an object, learn its story and devise a strategy that extends the amount of time it can be enjoyed. That being said, one of the things I love about working at the Lab is the opportunity to work on large jobs over an extended period of time. An example of that is a set of six David and Goliath tapestries hanging in St. Mary’s Chapel at Washington National Cathedral. The conservation campaign lasted years (with some pauses) and when the last one was complete and installed it was very gratifying to see how the conservation of the textiles really enhanced a beautiful a space.

What is your favorite part of the Cathedral?
I think that my favorite thing about the Cathedral is the way it is a work in progress: it is interested and able to engage so many people in so many ways. It has aspects that are current and those that are traditional and it works on being open and welcoming.

Anna Szalecki, Senior Conservator
I joined the Cathedral in 2000 as a Kress Foundation fellow. During that time, I conserved two Cathedral tapestries The Agony and Crucifixion from the Barberini Collection. I specialized in conservation and restoration of tapestries, carpets and big textiles from antiques to modern time. I’ve worked on many tapestries and carpets from museums: Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington DC, the NY Academy of Medicine, NYC, the Denver Art Museum, the U.N., the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and private clients as well. I’m interested in researching cleaning methods in museum conservation, spot cleaning, solvents, chemistry analyses and fiber microscopy.

What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
My most memorable project was the conservation of a Kiswah; the black silk velvet and gold-embroidered curtain once used to cover the holy Ka’aba in Medina, Saudia Arabia. It was reinstalled in 2015 at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

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