Every morning, you show up at work with fine-tuned laser focus. You know that sharp mind is vital if everyone’s going to make it home in one piece.
One mistake and everything could be ruined. The pressure is immense, but you? You’re ready.
You’re determined to put your years of training and hard work to the test. You turn on the bright lights, put on your gloves, and prepare your instruments. It’s time to get started on your first patient of the day.
A wooden duck.
Shandi Chester, Restorer Extraordinaire, studied Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). After graduating in May of 2014, Shandi landed a sweet gig that puts her at the intersection of art and science. With a steady hand, she painstakingly operates on damaged works of art and miraculously gives them new life.
What is your current company name and job title?
I am currently a Restorer in the art department at AMRestore, a disaster relief company that cleans and restores the items in a person’s home after fire or flood.
Where is AMRestore located?
AMRestore is in Glen Burnie, Maryland.
What is a typical day on the job like for you?
Currently, my days consist mostly of restoring ducks. A LOT of ducks. We have this large job where the homeowner has hundreds of duck decoys, so now my days and weeks to come look pretty much like this:
7:30am clock in
7:40ish start restoring ducks
10-10:15am break time
10:16-11:59am more ducks
12-12:45pm stop thinking about ducks because food
12:46-4:20pm ducks, ducks, ducks
4:21-4:29 clean up
4:30 BYE DUCKS!
As much as these ducks have created a routine, they also illustrate how unpredictable our work can be. Did I ever expect to be cleaning box after box of wooden ducks? Nope. When I started, I was mostly cleaning, matting, and framing prints and photographs—just your average household Ikea artwork in Walmart frames type stuff, so ducks were a departure.
Regularly, we are also tasked with estimating new jobs, documenting and cataloguing our work, and sometimes going out to the homes to pack up artwork that we bring back to our department. When we’re not solely focused on ducks, those things also occupy our days.
Since we’re dealing with disasters, there’s no telling when we could get new artwork in. There have been multiple times when it’s around 4 and we’re told there’s wet artwork that needs urgent care coming in. On those days, we have to stay and make sure those pieces are treated properly to prevent further damage.
What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?
A lot of the work we do is repetitive and tedious. I guarantee it sounds awful to a lot of people, but it’s relaxing to me. It helps clear my head. It’s also extremely satisfying to visually reverse the damages a piece of work has encountered, removing signs of smoke or water damage and returning someone’s belongings to the way they remember them before the fire or flood.
At the same time, our work is, like I said, really unpredictable: I’ve seen a Band-Aid used to patch canvas and art hot glued into frames. It can get a little weird and funny sometimes.
What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?
I went to college for fine art. The funny thing is, most of my art practice is very immediate and messy and impermanent. Restoration work fulfills the other side of my personality that relaxes into a more planned way of working.
My art background directly assists my work at AMRestore by giving me a knowledge of materials and methods. Still, the training that has been most useful to my job is the painting conservation course I took while studying abroad in Florence, Italy. Retouching for a disaster relief company like this is very different from art conservation. There are different time restraints, different clients and types of artwork, and different materials. However, AMRestore values a lot of the principles of conservation, like using reversible and non-destructive techniques and preventing any further harm from coming to the piece of art.
In your own personal experience, how different is conserving in the US versus Italy?
I haven’t done much in the way of conservation in the US, but a big difference I’ve noticed is Italy’s emphasis on history and age. The US doesn’t have such an extensive history and culture of art and art conservation so there’s less of a sense of tradition like through the passing down of techniques from generation to generation.
You say that your title is Restorer, but you talk about conservation. What’s the difference between the two? Are the terms interchangeable?
I talk about conservation because, although what we do at AMRestore is restoration, I see restoration as an adjacent field, one that most of the people who have worked in the art department get into via an interest in art conservation.
Restoration is more concerned with treating damage or directly removing signs of age and wear while conservation is centered more around the lifetime and context of a work: thinking about how that life can be prolonged and thoroughly understanding the condition it’s in before deciding on an ethical and appropriate treatment. They’re not interchangeable, but they definitely overlap and work together often.
What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?
As someone who has goals of finding internship opportunities in art conservation, going back to school to receive the necessary chemistry credits, and eventually applying to a graduate program in art conservation, I think working at a place like AMRestore is a good way of being in a related field while also making money to support those other goals.
My advice for people looking to go into conservation is to not get weighed down by some big, looming path that you’re expected to take. Find what works for you and make it work for your goals. That’s something I have to keep telling myself. I had a hard time believing it when I first took this job because I felt like I was somehow removing myself from my conservation goals. Luckily, I’m seeing more and more that I am just working towards those goals in the way that’s best for me.
In hindsight, would you recommend taking any other classes for artists looking to work in the field of conservation?
I would definitely have completed some chemistry courses. None were offered at my school but I really wish I had more of a knowledge of chemistry because it’s vital in conservation. I’m making plans to take them now, but it would have been nice to do them before I started looking for work in conservation.
What’s the coolest piece that you’ve worked on? What piece of art is your dream conservation job?
The coolest piece I’ve worked on is… I can’t believe I’m saying this due to my contempt for all the ducks… but the ducks. I really love cleaning pieces, seeing them go from completely unrecognizable to vibrant and beautiful, and some of the ducks I cleaned definitely gave me that, “AW YEEEAH” feeling of joy when they were finished.
At my job, we have been slightly pining over a job that came in a little while back that included some Spanish Baroque paintings. It’s super rare that we see 1.) actual paintings and 2.) artwork made before the 20th century, so we were really happy. Unfortunately, their damages weren’t caused by the home disaster so they weren’t covered for restoration.
As for my dream conservation job, I have a love for wax anatomical models, specifically 18th and 19th century European models, but have found very little information about their conservation, so I would love to learn and work with them.
Homework time! Are you interested in two completely different fields like Psychology and Engineering or Math and Photography? Like Shandi, you may not have to choose one or the other! Explore careers that allow you to pursue both of these passions at the same time. Creatively blend your interests in a way that’s completely out of the box! If you’re not sure exactly how to do this or if it’s even possible, start by exploring one path. Find someone who works in one of the fields you’re interested in, and explain what you’re hoping to do. Ask for advice on how to combine that first interest with another field.