Step inside the office of Marie Rizkalla, and you might wonder if you’re in a chemistry lab or an artist’s studio. Science gadgets can be found next to canvas paintings, while a stereomicroscope sits amid paintbrushes and a painter’s pallet. That’s because as a fine arts conservator, Rizkalla’s work is “a unique combination of scientist, artist and historian,” she says. Since she opened her business, Fine Arts Conservation, three years ago, Rizkalla has taken in work from local private owners and small institutions alike—but her career in this field spans more than 10 years bringing new life to more than 100 pieces of art, from glass icons and large Cuban paintings to Swedish family heirlooms and even a 19th dynasty Pharonic death mask.
Rizkalla’s career in this unique discipline wasn’t her intentional destination, at least not at first. “I got into art completely by accident,” she says, recalling being in sixth grade and devastated when her choice class, band, was full. “So I went to art kicking and screaming,” she says. But her natural talents soon became apparent, and before long she was winning local art awards and setting up a little studio in her room.
Once art became a part of her identity, it was there to stay, despite the science classes that held the other half of her heart. “I didn’t find the contradiction in any of them, I thought [biology, chemistry and art] all went together in a way that made sense,” she says. So when she started college at University of California, Irvine, in the pre-med track, she made a pact with herself to take an art class every semester to balance out the science. But she soon realized that art wasn’t just a sideshow for her, and turned her pre-med plans into a double major in art history and biology. When she discovered a master’s program in art conservation at the University of Delaware, she knew she had reached her final destination. “I seemed to be on this path without even knowing it,” Rizkalla says.
Today she spends her day testing paint layers, removing discolored and oxidized varnish, reinforcing canvases, applying scientifically formulated varnish and anything else it takes to restore the integrity of a piece of art and promote longevity. This is no easy task, because as Rizkalla points out, “Every work of art is different, so there is no one formula that works.” With the help of her microscope and thorough understanding of organic chemistry, Rizkalla is able to manipulate the different chemical and physical properties of each layer without damaging the painting. Colors can be restored, peeling paint can be relaxed and even canvases with gaping tears can be mended with Japanese tissue paper and visually reintegrated with careful dots of paint. “There’s always hope for everything. There is nothing that can’t be improved,” Rizkalla says. For many clients, enlisting Rizkalla’s services may mean the difference between having a painting and not having one; if it was in such poor condition that it would simply live under a bed, “It would basically stop existing,” she says.
Although Rizkalla spends hours on every piece of work, and most sit in her studio between two months and one year depending on the treatment each piece needs, she is careful to remain an invisible part of the process. The goal is to let the artwork speak the way the artist originally intended it to, by fixing anything that takes away from the full appreciation of the piece. “It’s still completely the artist and nothing me, but somehow I was able to facilitate this change,” she says. Rizkalla’s favorite moment eaily is when clients are blown away by a finished product. “How did you do this without making it different?” clients often want to know. “It’s not that they’re blown away by what I’ve done, but by the piece itself … It was something they always loved, but then they come in and realize they love it even more. That’s when I know I’ve done my job right.”
Did You Know?
Marie Rizkalla’s studio is hidden inside her husband’s dental office. Learn more at artrestorationmn.com.