Name: Noelle Ocon
Title: Conservator of Paintings
Company: North Carolina Museum of Art
Noelle Ocon does invisible work. As Conservator of Paintings at the North Carolina Museum of Art, she is tasked behind the scenes with caring for the collection’s paintings—an art defender, protecting priceless works from age, pests and the occasional handsy tourist.
The New Orleans native initially didn’t want to go to college, but she made a deal with her mom that she would try UNC-Chapel Hill for just one year. She ended up graduating from the university and chose to major in art history.
“At the end of my sophomore year, I went to a meeting for careers for art history majors,” says Ocon. “As I like to joke, it was a very short meeting, but I met a woman there who was a conservator. I had a ‘eureka’ moment; it was like a calling. From that point on, I had this path.”
After graduation, she worked for a private conservator in Maryland, and in 1996, earned her master’s degree from the State University College of Buffalo. The following year, when Ocon was hunting for a job, the only open position in her field was at the North Carolina Museum of Art, a happy coincidence. She’ll be celebrating 20 years at the museum this coming March.
Can you describe your job for us?
When we get a piece of art, I first want to make sure that it’s preserved, meaning controlling the temperature, the humidity, the light. We want to prevent or slow the agents of deterioration. Then we want to document it, determining the condition, the construction, the materials and the technique, which is a relatively new concept in all of art history. It’s really only the last 40 years or so that conservation has become more of a science instead of a craft. The sexy part is actually working on the painting, which is the preservation where we clean paintings and try to restore them as close to the original as possible. It would be great if that was all I did every day, but there are a lot of other things that go into taking care of the museum.
Checking light levels, heat, temperature, humidity, periodic dusting, checking what insects are inside and if they could harm the art. We get called if someone has touched a painting and we need to check on it. My colleagues go outside and clean the outdoor sculptures a few times a year because they have to be washed and waxed. Then there are other things such as traveling with artwork when we loan [it]. And when we have a show come here, we examine everything that comes in the door and then we check it when it leaves to make sure that it’s in the same condition it was when it arrived.
That sounds intense.
It is intense especially when you’re responsible for a $60 million Rembrandt or a $30 million Vermeer! People often ask if I’m nervous around artwork and I will say no, because when the artwork is in here, it’s my job. I make this analogy that when a surgeon is cutting into a person he’s not like, “Oh my God! I’m cutting into a person!” It loses its aura—it becomes just an object on the easel. Then, when it goes back on the wall, it regains its preciousness.
Will you walk us through a typical day?
I try to do my retouching in the morning. Retouching is where you touch in where all the paint has fallen off. Then I might give a tour to a group of interns here at the museum. We just bought a painting last week and I x-rayed it a few days ago; it took all morning to x-ray it, develop the films and put them together to examine what was in the x-ray.
What drew you to art history?
I signed up for this class focusing on Dutch and Flemish art, Jan Van Eyck to Bruegel and up to Rubens, 15th-, 16th-, 17th-century. That first day of art history class, the professor said, “Don’t take notes, just look.” And he showed us all these amazing paintings. I had been to art museums as a kid, but he started showing us Rogier van der Weyden and Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, and I thought, ‘This is it.’ And to this day, it’s my favorite kind of art. [The same professor] wrote me a letter of recommendation to go to graduate school. The “e” was broken on his typewriter, so he had to handwrite all the “e”s into the recommendation letter.
What are some of your favorite works that you have helped to conserve?
One of my favorites is “The Last Judgement” by Crispijn van den Broeck, a 16th-century painting. When we bought the painting, it was shipped down here and the way it was framed, the wood couldn’t move… so when I unframed it, the wood finally said, ‘Ahh!’ and cracked in half. That was a bad day. But I restored the front, and when I think about my favorite painting in the last 19 years, I would think of that one.
What are some challenges in the art world?
It’s all changing. I would rather just go look at a painting. I don’t need an iPad, I don’t need a soundtrack, I don’t need entertainment. All I need is a painting, but I’m a dinosaur now. It’s all about audience engagement and selfies and hashtags. I’m not that old, but that is sort of the newer generation and how they want to interact with art.
What are the best parts of your job?
I’ve been able to travel to Japan—none of this has been on the taxpayer’s dime—Russia, Germany, Holland, Italy, England, and see beautiful art. Also working here in this institution with my colleagues and making sure this art is here for future generations. It’s something that is difficult to think of because of the immediacy of our society. Like the Crispijn van den Broeck painting, that artist painted it with the intent to last forever. It’s still here 500 years later.
Does it ever strike you, when you are holding something that’s 500 years old, just how incredible that is?
Yes! So a painting that I was working on, the tree that it was painted on was cut down 50 years before the Jamestown Colony was established here. Christopher Columbus had just died when the tree was cut down. That’s how old the painting is and also how young our country is. You go to Munich, and you’re in a 13th century church or a restaurant that has been there for 700 years.
Do you make any art in your free time?
Not really. I dabble in calligraphy and watercolor, but once you look at a really good painting, it’s hard to go back and paint a picture of your cat.
Are there any misconceptions people have about your field?
Well, it’s not like Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters 2. Also, I want to make sure that people know that you get what you pay for. There is a sad truth to my field and the sad truth is that I am not certified. I have credentials, I have my undergrad degree, I have my graduate degree, I have my internship, my portfolio, I have the word of my colleagues, I have my publications…however, anyone today can say they are a conservator and there is nothing I can do to stop them.
Have you seen any examples of something going horribly wrong?
We have a painting here that someone put masking tape on, duct tape, people have nailed paintings to boards…there is a lot of bad restoration going on.
Like that woman who “restored” the mural of Jesus and it resembled a monkey?
Yes, exactly. Poor “Ecce Homo.” But you know? That city, Borja, in Spain made so much money from people coming to visit that painting that they are opening a visitor center. So, it’s been a boon to their economy.