Sarah Devan photo.jpgHow can we preserve the beauty of art? One answer is chemistry.

Today we interview Ecampus student Sarah Devan, an art and architecture conservator living in the Los Angeles area. She is currently working her way through our CH 121/122/123 general chemistry series.

Tell me more about your career in art and architecture conservation – what made you choose this path?

The traditional route to become an art conservator is generally to get an arts or art history degree, take some additional science courses, and then enter a 2-4 year art conservation master’s program (the length varies by school and internships). I came into this field through a slightly more circuitous route, but I’m finding that I’m all the better for it. I began by first going to architecture school. I quickly fell in love with historic architecture rather than new design, and went to work for a small architecture firm specializing in historic preservation. Hoping to expand on that career and grow into larger markets, I went to graduate school for historic preservation and continued to work with architecture firms doing larger and larger profile restorations. I became knowledgeable in repairing and restoring any number of materials including adobe, brick, stone, terra cotta, bronze and steel. Throughout that experience, I took the architect’s role, planning and directing the conservation efforts, but not performing the actual work. That was left up to the contractors. I wanted to know that side as well, so I took yet another career shift and began several internships in hands-on conservation work, with two art conservators and a books and paper conservator. Through these positions, I was introduced to an even larger variety of materials, both organic and inorganic, historic and contemporary. I am now working full time for a firm that allows me to draw on both sides of my experience, as an architect and as a conservator. And my non-traditional route to get here has been a huge benefit, becoming more of a generalist with some experience in all materials rather than specializing in one area. I’m now seeking to expand on that knowledge by going back to school yet again for the art conservation degree, and one day soon start my own firm.

How does our online general chemistry sequence relate to your goals?

I’m taking the online general chemistry sequence (and later organic chemistry), in part to fulfill the prerequisites for an art conservation master’s program, and in part to better understand the materials I work with on a daily basis. Even if I choose not to apply in the future, these courses have already helped me immeasurably. Chemistry is incredibly important in art and architecture conservation. The conservator has to have an understanding of the different materials, the way they behave (both by themselves and in relation to others), and how they deteriorate over time. We have to find ways to slow the inevitable decay—whether it’s from chemical changes, environmental impacts, or the human element—in order to preserve it for future generations. We regularly use scientific methods of observation, laboratory analysis, and experimental testing in the lab and in the field in order to develop the conservation treatments. It’s important to find treatments that can be reversible, or that have minimal impact to the artwork and can be re-treated in the future. Also important is to respect the artist’s original intent, which could even work against the goals of conservation (for example, if the artist wants the piece to decay over time). It’s fascinating stuff!

Some examples of our work, just to give you an idea, might include: deciding which type of solvent to use in order to clean and remove old varnish from a painting; or understanding how salts can migrate and recrystallize in masonry causing damage, and how best to remove them; or understanding the natural processes of bronze and copper in forming a surface patina, and whether they are protective, minimally corrosive, or potentially very damaging (causing pitting and surface loss).

What do you like most, or least, about our online classes? Do you have any advice for other online students?

I chose to take classes online largely due to my full-time work schedule. It was important for me to be able to study when I had time and at my own pace rather than taking a structured class two or three nights a week. The online format is really great for this. The OSU classes can be quite demanding in terms of the level of effort involved in order to keep up with the material. They are also quite comprehensive, and I’ve been impressed so far with how they are conducted. The professor and teaching assistants are approachable and quick to answer any questions I have. And the additional online resources, such as videos, have been very helpful for supplementing the material. The labs are pretty strange when you’re used to being in an actual lab environment, but they get the concepts across. They’re probably my least favorite part of the class. As for advice, I’m probably not saying anything new here. Time management and self-discipline are really key.

Is it difficult to find balance between work and online classes? What helps you achieve that balance (and perhaps relieve school stress)?

My work has been incredibly busy lately, so I’m finding it difficult to strike that balance between work and school right now. Fortunately my projects are so varied in scope, and I get to spend equal time between the field and the office, that it keeps me engaged and always learning something new. I could never be happy in a job where every day is the same routine. Right now I’m also taking a painting class (another prerequisite for the program), and it’s been a nice stress relief to do something creative and get out of my head for a few hours.


Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to share your story!