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Painting conservation reveals artist information

One of the new Fred Beaver paintings after being treated and reframed by the museum conservators. (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

Editor’s note: Robin Croskery Howard contributed to this article.

BIG CYPRESS — Processing new acquisitions can be an exciting moment for a conservator. Often, they are the first staff members to see every aspect of the object coming into the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s collection. This process may reveal further information about how an object was made, its use, or sometimes it gives us more information about its creator.

The museum recently acquired two paintings by the artist Fred Beaver, both of which were produced around the same time in 1961: the frames and mat board are from the same company and are the same style. Beaver (1911-1980) was a Creek artist from Eufala, Oklahoma. While he was an artist early in life, he had no formal training in the craft until he returned from military service in World War II.

After that experience, he spent most of his life working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and produced much artwork during this time. He was based in Florida while working for the BIA, and it was during this time that his art featured Florida Seminole themes.

In fact you may be familiar with one of his biggest works. The large triangular shaped mural that has been a feature of Okalee Village since it opened in 1960 was painted by Beaver. He worked on the multi-piece wooden painting in place. That same mural still hangs at Okalee today.

The museum is also proud to have several smaller examples of his Florida Seminole art in our collection on Big Cypress. The two new paintings are a nice addition.

The back of one of the museum’s new Fred Beaver paintings shows the acidic cardboard and deteriorating tape that was damaging the painting, as well as the title and other information written by the artist. (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

Both our conservators, Robin Croskery Howard and Maria Dmitrieva, collaborated on conserving these objects. They decided to open up the paintings, done through careful disassembly. One of the first things noticed during the initial examination was the buildup of dust and dirt on the frame and glass, even on the interior of the glass. Dust is an abrasive material that can cause quite a bit of damage; it is also visually distracting.

Another reason the paintings were unframed is that the original backer was made of cardboard, a highly acidic material. Acidity is not good for the long-term stability of an object. And acidic paper touching acidic paper worsens the condition, creating a runaway train effect. Wherever it is appropriate, conservators will replace acidic components of objects with acid-free substitutes.

When the paintings were taken apart, lo and behold, more information from the artist himself was hiding beneath the backers. Beaver listed the titles as well as the original prices for the paintings; one on the original backer and one on an inner mat board. For example, one of the paintings is titled “Seminole Family” and the 1961 price the artist sold it for was $20.

This discovery will help us provide more information to the public through our online collections and during exhibition. We then replaced the mat boards that were making the acid staining and chemical wear on the paper worse. After sizing and cutting the new archival mat boards, the paintings were reassembled using a special type of paper and water soluble adhesive to create hinges. After this process, the paintings are safer and will last a lot longer with these new materials.

Do you have framed photographs or paintings around your house? The best thing you can do for them is to display them away from direct light. Hang the frames on a wall not facing a window. Carefully dust the surfaces regularly using a clean cotton cloth to minimize abrasive damage.

If you would like to learn more or need advice on how to care for your heirlooms or objects you have in your own collection, please contact our laboratory. You can call (863) 902-1113 or email and ask to
speak to a conservator. Hope to hear from you soon!

Fred Beaver painting the mural on the wall of the Arts and Crafts Center at the Seminole Okalee Indian Village on the Hollywood Reservation in 1960. (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Musuem)