Overland Park Conservator Mines a Family Legacy
The Van Witt Fine Art Conservation studio is a high-ceilinged, light-filled, airy space in downtown Overland Park. Salon-sized canvases hang high on the walls, with smaller paintings displayed below both on the walls and on easels. There are large counters for examining or conserving works of art on each side of the main room.
One might easily overlook the child’s blue apron hanging in the back corner of the studio. Peggy Van Witt, the founder of the business bearing her name, used to wear this garment over her clothes when she helped her grandmother, Salome Panthel, as she conserved works of art years ago in Frankfurt. Van Witt’s grandmother was also trained as an artist and painted most of the large-scale paintings hanging in her granddaughter’s Overland Park studio. Brunhilda Panthel, Salome’s daughter and Peggy’s mother, painted as well but made her living as an art and antiques dealer.
Van Witt’s connection to art through family and work is a powerful one, something she describes as an “almost generational obsession.” Hailing from a family of artists who also conserved, bought and sold works of art, it seemed only natural for Van Witt to become a fine art conservator as well.
A typical day at the studio might begin with answering emails, phone calls, writing conservation reports or doing estimates. Staff meetings to discuss completion of current projects are held daily. Conservation is ongoing in between these tasks. Several hours in the afternoon may be reserved for clients to receive free estimates by appointment.
The most common issues Van Witt deals with are cleaning and replacing paint loss. Movers can often be the culprits when damage occurs. But another frequent disaster is when people attempt to clean a painting themselves. The all too frequent worst-case scenario is using soap and water on a dirty canvas. “Water is the enemy,” Van Witt explains. Water creates swelling of the ground (the layer between the paint and the canvas) which in turn can cause the paint to pop off. Often, she is asked which cleaning agent she employs and there is no automatic answer. “There are 80 different combinations of solvents but I need to test the paint layer before I can make any determination.”
One misconception that many people have is that it can take months for the conservation process to be completed. Now that a combination of raw pigments and polymers are being used in lieu of oil paint, the drying time has been drastically shortened. Most projects can be completed in three to four weeks rather than in a few months.
The most difficult project ever? A 20th-century abstract painting of black elements painted on a black background. “I thought I was going to go blind,” Van Witt said as she laughed. Contemporary artists sometimes use unconventional media, such as house paint, which can prove challenging to match.
Van Witt and her team conserve and restore over 250 works of art annually. In addition to their many private clients, they provide services to many local institutions such as the Spencer Museum of Art, the Wichita Art Museum and the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art. No matter who the client may be, Van Witt’s objective is to maintain the integrity of the art and to preserve it for future generations.