Id been in practice as a conservator of art and architecture for about twenty-five years when I had my first big, bona fide failure. Before then Id made only minor errors that could be easily fixed and disclosedas our profession requires us to dowith little fanfare or consequence. My irreparable blunder came in 2009, when the world was in economic freefall and there was little work to be had.
I had just moved back to Los Angeles after a fellowship year at the American Academy in Rome when I was called in by an architect to address the emergency removal of an exotic early-twentieth-century wall covering on a historic Craftsman residence. Called Anaglypta, a name amalgamated from the Greek words for “raised” and “cameo,” the embossed wood pulp paneling was so rare that I had never even heard of it before. Neither had any of my local colleagues.
One thing about conservators is that we love encountering unusual materials. For me, who has a particular affinity for twentieth-century proprietary inventions, like Bakelite, Linoleum, and Formica, this Anaglypta project was a dream come true, especially since I was starting a new solo practice after three decades of partnering with others.
All of my previous partnerships had ended bitterly. My father had had similar repeated problems with work associates, a fact that both he attributed to the fact that people are greedy and backstabbing.” My mother, who was prone to raging at the two of us, privately said to me, “Your fathers problem is his ego. He thinks that just because he was born rich, hes better than everyone.”
My fathers family had been well-off middle class in pre-revolutionary Cuba. My paternal grandfather Alberto, a 1920s immigrant to Cuba from Romania, had owned a dry-goods store and two apartment buildings. Because my grandfather refused to believe that the United States would allow Communism to exist ninety miles from its shores, the family lost everything when we left for Miami, and I grew up in a house where there were constant worries and fights about money.
When I left home to go to college, I vowed to live life differently. I would avoid the scorching arguments, never hit my child or have serial blowups with friends and family. However, apart from hitting my child, which I studiously avoided, the reverse was true: I fought often with my first husband and we wound up divorcing. My partnerships, the first in Philadelphia and then two others in Los Angeles, turned out to be so contentious that I ended up in court with one of them and had not spoken to the two others in years.
Called Anaglypta, a name amalgamated from the Greek words for “raised” and “cameo,” the embossed wood pulp paneling was so rare that I had never even heard of it before. Neither had any of my local colleagues.
I chalked up the demise of my Philadelphia partnership to both of us being young and inexperienced, but I was certain that my Los Angeles associates, neither of whom had either the training or experience Id had when we started off together, had been simply greedy and overreaching. Nonetheless, despite the fact that I was one of the most well-trained and experienced architectural conservators in Los Angeles, no one wanted to work with me, even people I had trained and mentored in the past.
The Anaglypta removal was a rush job to accommodate a change in plans during a kitchen renovation. The architect who called me in to do it said that demolition was to start the following weeka preposterous schedule for such an undertaking. But this was a juicy project, and the fact that it was being offered to me, and not my backstabbing former partners, even though Id been away for an entire year, seemed to be proof of my superior abilities. Besides, I was also told that once the material had been removed from the wall, I would have plenty of time to clean and prepare it for reattachment.
I arrived in Altadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains on a hot, dry, and windy morning. Though I had never been to this particular place before, the tree-lined street of Craftsman houses swept me with nostalgia: those gabled roofs, wide porches and lawns flanked by oaks and redwoods was a vision straight out of my childhood drawings.
When I was a newly arrived Cuban immigrant living in Miami Beach with totally distraught parents who struggled to make ends meet and come to terms with their losses, I filled notebooks with what I imagined to be real American neighborhoods of pine trees, rosebushes, and pitched roof houses like the ones I stood before. Moms that smiled and never screamed or used a belt, or told their only, lonely child that they wish she had never been born. Serial abandonment throughout her childhood had made my mother volatile and violent. Marrying my father had provided her a modicum of safety, but losing everything when we left Cuba shattered her peace of mind.
With its abundance of darkly polished woods and Batchelder tile fireplaces, the 1910 Craftsman house conveyed domestic comfort and an era of history when artistry mattered. The Anaglypta was in great condition, firmly bonded to the dining rooms walls. Crouching with a magnifying loupe over my eyes, and probing the edges of the embossing with a scalpel, I realized that I was going to have to put at least some brakes on the removal.
Were going to have to face the material with Japanese tissue so it doesnt fall apart during removal, I said. What I really should have told the architect was that he was proposing an impossible schedule. But I didnt. The last thing I wanted was for them to call in one of my competitors, especially the two who I felt had betrayed me.
The following week, I arrived at the site to apply the facing, hoping this would buy me time to figure out the rest. What I found, instead, was that the contractor had taken it upon himself to start removing the panels. Alarmed, I dropped my tool kit and rushed over to lend a hand. To my astonishment, the panels came off in one piece, with little damage.
Calamity only began the following week, when I began flipping the panels in order to remove the plaster bits that remained stuck to the backing. The pulp began to splinter like bits of Roman glass. I should have stopped right then and there, but I was too swept up in the process, especially my own need to succeed. I asked the contractor to bring the panels to my studio. There, alone, I continued pressing at the problem, using different tools, to no avail. The panels kept falling apart.
At night, I awoke in terror at my own hubris. Why did I take on something that I knew could not work? Why did I not walk away when I saw that things were not being done correctly? Abject and certain Id be sued, I finally admitted that I could not finish the project. The architect was furious. “But it wasnt my fault!” I cried. “It was the contractor. He started the process.” Though the blame did begin with others, I should have known better. Conservators are trained to keep damage from happening and stop it when it does. My ego didnt let me do that.
I fell into a tailspin, questioning my professionalism, my need to always succeed and best my competitors. Though my new solo practice grew exponentially, I felt alone and friendless, unsure of my fitness for the work itself, which is supposed to be approached judiciously and humbly, in service of materials and not the other way around. But that failure was exactly what I needed to set on a path of repair that went beyond the boundaries of conservation.
At night, I awoke in terror at my own hubris. Why did I take on something that I knew could not work? Why did I not walk away when I saw that things were not being done correctly?
Now ten years later, I still wince when I think of those Anaglypta panels. But I also know that that failure forced me to confront my arrogance. As I began peeling back the layers of my personality, I began to see all of us who fail, destroy, and damage despite our best intentionsmy parents, whom I had blamed, my partners, whom Id loathedthrough the eyes of a conservatorin other words, someone who understands that we are all damaged in one way or another, and seeking the source of our vulnerability is a prelude to redemption.
This personal exploration led me to write a memoir titled Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair. In it, I come to terms with my own failures while blending my family story, the history of my beleaguered birthplace, and the tenets of the conservators practice. The personal work is far from over. Just like with the materials of art and architecture, the tender fragments of the human heart need ongoing maintenance for a long time.
Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repairby Rosa Lowinger is available via Row House Publishing.