Conserving the Treasures of Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver
To celebrate the completion of conservation work on Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver's invaluable illustrations, this post gives a brief overview of Cleaver and how Toronto Public Library has preserved her art.
Who is Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver?
Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver (1939-1985) is one of Canada’s most renowned children’s illustrators and is one of the first Canadians to illustrate children's picture books. She is known for her unique torn paper collages, monoprints and her black and white linocuts (a printmaking technique similar to woodcuts, using linoleum). Cleaver's art reflects her diverse interests and influences such as hand shadows, folk art, Persian art, Impressionism and modern art (Edwards and Saltman, 2004, 37). Hallmarks of Cleaver's collages are bright colours, layered construction and a sense of spontaneous energy (Cullinan, 176-177). Here is Cleaver describing collage:
"I feel I can achieve more sensitivity and feeling through scissors than with a pencil ... I carefully choose my paper for colour, texture to convey a certain feeling. Through collage one learns to simplify and bring out the essence. Collage represents feeling because all the decisions made are based on feeling." (quoted in Edwards and Saltman, 2010, 61)
Among Cleaver's best-known illustrations are those from The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada (1968). This collection of poems was "one of the first fully successful integrations of pictures and text in children's book illustration in Canada" (Edwards and Saltman, 2010, 59). The artwork held such a special space in Cleaver’s heart that she requested for a copy of the second edition to be placed in her coffin (Edwards and Saltman, 2004, 31).
Not only was Cleaver critically acclaimed — she was the runner-up for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1972 — there now exists an award in her name. The Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award was established after Cleaver's death, using funds set aside in her will; the award is "to be given annually in recognition of outstanding artistic talent in a Canadian picture book" (IBBY Canada). You can see a list of winning illustrators on the award's official webpage.
What's the connection between Cleaver and Toronto Public Library?
In 1967, Cleaver was searching for a publisher. She brought samples of her artwork to show staff at Toronto Public Library's Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books. The head of the collection, Judith St. John, asked Cleaver to return that evening for an event at the Boys and Girls House library (Edwards and Saltman, 2004, 31). St. John sat Cleaver next to William Toye, editor at Oxford University Press Canada. This marked the start of strong partnership between Cleaver and Toye. Working with Toye, Cleaver made her debut as the illustrator of The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada (1968).
The library's Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books is one of two major repositories of original artwork by Cleaver, along with Library and Archives Canada. The Osborne Collection holds the following work by Cleaver: 27 collages, 21 linocuts, 1 collaged poster, 3 watercolours, 2 Christmas card designs, 1 black and white rubbing, and 8 black and white illustrator sheets that come primarily from The Wind Has Wings. These items were donated in 1985, the year of her death.
Recognizing the significance of Cleaver's work, the library committed itself to conserving these pieces of history. The head of the Osborne Collection at the time, Leslie McGrath, flagged the restoration project and The Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections raised $26,000 to fund the vital conservation work.
Why did Cleaver's works need to be conserved?
In an internal report, a conservator at Toronto Public Library wrote that "Cleaver's collages are in desperate need of conservation attention as the paper pieces... are literally falling off the backing pages." The report identified three major concerns about their physical condition:
- Collage pieces were falling off because the adhesive was weakening
- The adhesive was creating yellow/orange-ish stains
- The overall work was fading
The issue of loose pieces meant that some of the works were off-limits to the public. This is especially problematic for the library, which strives to make its materials as accessible as possible. Plastic overlays on some collages created a static charge that worsened the issue of loosening pieces. The flexing of the collages during handling also risked pieces falling off — not to mention the risk of losing pieces.
What were some conservation challenges?
The goal of this conservation work was not to restore the work by "fixing" imperfections like discolouration or missing pieces. Instead, the goal was to be minimally invasive and to preserve the work as it is, to preserve its integrity as much as possible. A key challenge for conserving Cleaver's collages was figuring out how to safely remove adhesive residue and reattach pieces of collage. This was especially difficult given the lack of research on the subject. In one of the only professional papers with advice for conserving collage, its author wryly suggests that there is very little written on collage because it is difficult for most institutions to admit that their works of art are falling apart (Keynan, 76).
Toronto Public Library reached out for guidance from Library and Archives Canada, which also holds some of Cleaver's works. But Library and Archives Canada had not done any major conservation work. Furthermore, unlike with living artists, there was no way to get answers to all of the questions a conservator may have from the creator herself. All of this meant that Toronto Public Library had to figure out the best approach largely on its own.
The challenge of identifying the adhesive used by Cleaver had serious implications for the residue's safe removal, which was necessary in some cases before reattaching pieces. It first seemed that the collages used a type of rubber cement, which itself could be treated a variety of ways. As an example of just how complex treatment can be, take a quick look at this (shortened) excerpt from a conservator's report outlining a possible treatment for rubber cement:
"Testing showed that a 1:1 mixture of ethanol and acetone softened the rubber cement. Single layers of blotting paper were saturated with the solvent mixture, snugly fitted into the bottoms of Petri dishes, and inverted over inserts still attached to the text block. The blotter did not come into contact with the object… only the solvent vapour did. After ten minutes the rubber cement had sufficiently softened so that a micro spatula could easily lift inserts from the text block ... Some inserts were dried on the suction table… The rubber cement was reduced on the verso using a 1:1 ethanol and acetone poultice in Fuller’s Earth." (Kahn, 71)
Collages were sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for scientific testing. In what amounts to somewhat of a plot twist in the conservation world, it turned out that rubber cement was not actually used in all of the collages. The results showed a mixture of adhesives, and the adhesives were not necessarily consistent for every artwork.
Reattaching loose pieces posed even more challenges. One overarching concern was whether or not Cleaver intended for certain pieces to be completely flat, or whether certain parts of a collage were meant to be left floating. For parts that the conservators wanted to reattach, certain approaches had drawbacks. One option was to use Japanese tissue hinges, which act like folds between the pieces and surface to which they attach. But this is problematic if someone handling the pieces brushes against the surface. Re-pasting the entire collage with a solvent (wet) adhesive was another option. But this could cause bleeding of colours and warping of paper.
How did Toronto Public Library end up conserving the works?
The conservators for this project were dedicated to a minimally invasive approach — but they also considered artistic intention and needed to provide enough treatment for the works to be accessible in person or through exhibits. Determining Cleaver's artistic intention — at least to a degree — was achieved by cross-referencing the originals with the publications in which they appeared. During the conservation of original artwork from The Wind has Wings, a copy of that book was close at hand. To make the works more accessible, they were matted in a way that is ready to be shown in an exhibit, while also allowing a researcher to remove the matte to see additional elements of the work. Stiff boards were attached underneath some of the artworks to prevent dangerous flexing.
In terms of the technical treatment, the conservators decided to use an adhesive called Lascaux 360 HV. This adhesive remains tacky when dry, allowing pieces to be stuck on without risking the negative effects of wet adhesives. To prepare an area for the new adhesive, the yellow/orange-ish residue was lightly sanded to ensure that the new adhesive worked properly. It was often a painstakingly time consuming process — but it has breathed new life into art that is important to Canada and the world.
Where can I see Cleaver's collages in person?
Two works by Cleaver can be seen as part of the Northern Lights, Northern Sights exhibit at the Lillian H. Smith library, home of the Osborne Collection. This exhibit runs until March 3, 2018.
The original collage seen on the cover of The Wind Has Wings is currently on display in the TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library. The exhibit, I Am Canada: Celebrating Canadian Picture Book Art runs until January 21, 2018.
We thank the generous support of The Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections.
This post describes just a sliver of the work done by conservators at the Toronto Public Library working in the Preservation and Digitization Department and by staff at the Osborne Collection. Special acknowledgements to conservators Sheina Barnes, Erin Dawson, Nadège Duqueyroix, Laura Cunningham and Wendy McPhee.
Cullinan, Bernice and Diane G. Person, Editors, The Continuum Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. NY, NY, 2001. 176-177.
Edwards, Gail, and Judith Saltman. Elizabeth Cleaver, William Toye, and Oxford University Press: Creating the Canadian Picturebook. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Spring 2004. 31.
Edwards, Gail, and Judith Saltman. Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing. University of Toronto Press, 2010.
Kahn, Yasmeen. "A Treatment of a Publisher's Paste-up." The Paper Conservator: Journal of the Institute of Paper Conservation, Vol. 18, (1994). 71-76.
Keynan, Daria; "Issues in collage conservation" Modern works, modern problems? Conference papers. Leigh: Institute of paper conservation, 1994. 73-79.