Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Treatment of Mary Huntoon’s Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, an Etching: Part 2

May 19th, 2020

In the first installment of this two part blog series, the Kansas artist, Mary Huntoon, was introduced. We shared how her print, Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, was prepared for an overall washing treatment in order to reduce several dark brown stains along the top edge that interrupted the image area and created bulging in the surface.

Before any washing treatments are performed on works on paper, all media are tested with the proposed washing solutions to ensure their stability. The surface is also checked for any areas where the print may have been previously restored, or even re-touched by the artist with another material that might be water-soluble. I carefully examined the print under magnification during testing in order to make sure the ink and paper were safe for washing. Everything checked out, so I was ready to start the washing step.

Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, prior to treatment. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

Prior to washing, the print was gently surface-cleaned and the brown paper attachments were removed. You can read more about these steps in the first blog post about this treatment.

Before a work on paper is placed into a bath, the entire object must slowly undergo a humidification step. This helps to relax the paper and the media and prevents aggressive swelling. Then the object is gently sprayed with deionized water using a fine mist attachment in order to fully saturate it. This step-wise procedure ensures a gentle transition for the object into the bath.    

The print was washed in successive baths of pH-adjusted deionized water and air-dried. I examined the print once again to assess the progress of the washing step. The stains had noticeably lessened, but they were still quite visible, and I decided to test another stain reduction technique.

Using a small brush, I gently introduced very small applications of a dilute reducing bleach to the stained areas. This reduced the stain to an almost undetectable level. Then the bleach was fully rinsed with additional baths of pH-adjusted deionized water. I used an ultraviolet lamp to check to see that all the bleach, which fluoresces under ultraviolet radiation, was rinsed away.

The etching Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, by Mary Huntoon, in normal light, after treatment.
Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, in normal light, after treatment. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

After the stain reduction and overall washing was complete, it was time to address a few structural concerns. Weak creases in the upper corners made the print vulnerable to breakage and tearing, so I reinforced them using Japanese paper applied with wheat starch paste we make in our conservation lab. Instead of cutting the Japanese paper, it is wetted and torn. This torn edge makes use of the long kozo fibers in the paper and creates a strong mend that integrates well into the paper. After all the mends and reinforcements were complete, the print was humidified a second time and flattened between thick felts. Pressing between felts helped to remove planar distortions along the edges, while also maintaining the plate mark of the etching.

Now that the treatment is complete, the print is ready to be returned to the collection where it can be safely examined by visitors to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.  

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library is home to the collection of papers and original artwork by Kansas artist and art therapist, Mary Huntoon (1896 – 1970). As part of a collaborative initiative between KU Libraries and the Spencer Museum of Art, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, many of the prints, drawings, and watercolors by Huntoon will be treated.

Creases in the upper corners of the etching Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, by Mary Huntoon, being reinforced with Japanese paper attached with wheat starch paste.
Creases in the upper corners were reinforced with Japanese paper attached with wheat starch paste. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.
The etching Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, by Mary Huntoon, in raking light, prior to treatment (at left), and after treatment (at right).
Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, in raking light, prior to treatment (at left), and after treatment (at right). Call number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

Jacinta Johnson, Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative

Treatment of Mary Huntoon’s “Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators,” an Etching: Part 1

December 3rd, 2019

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library is home to the collection of papers and original artwork by Kansas artist and art therapist, Mary Huntoon (1896-1970). As part of a collaborative initiative between KU Libraries and the Spencer Museum of Art, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, many of the prints, drawings, and watercolors by Huntoon are being treated over the next two years.

Huntoon was born in Topeka, Kansas. After graduating from Washburn University in 1920, she studied at the Art Students League in New York City for six years under Joseph Pennell and Robert Henri, and was a good friend and colleague of William Stanley Hayter, founder of Atelier 17. She later became director of the Kansas Federal Art Project and made significant contributions to the early development of art therapy.

Artist Mary Huntoon draws with a stylus on a copper printing plate.
Artist Mary Huntoon draws with a stylus on a copper printing plate. Mary Huntoon Papers. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.
Artist Mary Huntoon stands before an easel, at work on a painting.
Artist Mary Huntoon stands before an easel, at work on a painting. Mary Huntoon Papers. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, is an artist’s proof print (a print made prior to the final edition), an etching in black printing ink on cream, laid, machine-made paper. The primary condition issue involves two large brown stains along the top edge that interrupt the image area and cause distortions in the sheet. An overall washing treatment was proposed in order to reduce the appearance of the stains.

The Mary Huntoon print, "Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators," prior to treatment.
The Mary Huntoon print, “Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators,” prior to treatment. Mary Huntoon Papers. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.
The Mary Huntoon print, "Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators," in raking light, prior to treatment.
The Mary Huntoon print, “Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators,” in raking light, prior to treatment. Mary Huntoon Papers. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

In preparation for the treatment, the printing inks were tested to ensure they would be stable during the wet treatment. The outer margins and back of the print were selectively surface-cleaned with a soft sponge, avoiding all printed areas, as well as the graphite pencil inscription. Surface-cleaning ensures that loose and embedded dirt and grime are not driven deeper into the paper support during the wet treatment.

A soft sponge is used to remove embedded surface dirt and grime from the Mary Huntoon print, "Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators."
A soft sponge is used to remove embedded surface dirt and grime from the Mary Huntoon print, “Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators.” Mary Huntoon Papers. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

Brown paper tape attachments on the top edge of the front and back of the print were removed with a methylcellulose poultice. The attachments had been partially removed at some point, and the top layer of the paper was slightly skinned. The poultice delivers moisture in a controlled way, softening the adhesive, and allowing safe removal of the attachment.

A methylcellulose poultice is applied to deliver controlled moisture to soften adhesive and brown paper attachments on the Mary Huntoon print, "Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators."
At left, brown paper attachments had been partially detached at some point, skinning some of the paper fibers. At center, a methylcellulose poultice was applied to the attachment to deliver controlled moisture to the area. At right, the poultice softened the adhesive and paper. It was gently removed at an acute angle with tweezers and dried flat. Mary Huntoon Papers. Call Number: RH MS 209. Click image to enlarge.

The print is now ready to be washed. Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn how the stains were reduced.

Jacinta Johnson
Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative