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A person walks by the mural.

Anyone who enters the Moelis Grand Reading Room in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center is immediately confronted by an arresting sight: a 19-foot by 35-foot wool and silk mural that takes up one full wall of the large, light-filled study space. Two additional murals hang on other walls in the reading room. Created by Dutch artist and sustainability activist Claudy Jongstra, Fields of Transformation is softly toned in grays, creams, browns, and blues, its organic, abstract lines and whorls reminiscent of wispy clouds or water gently lapping on a beach. But according to Sarah Reidell, the Penn Libraries’ Margy E. Meyerson Head of Conservation, the mural does more than evoke the natural world: it is intimately and continuously affected by it. “Seasonally, we’ve seen changes. It expands. It gets heavier [in the summer]. Then it contracts when it’s less humid in the winter months.”

“Our spaces move and breathe. We just don’t notice it as much,” she points out. “The monumental size of this artwork means we notice it a lot more.” 

The shifting, changing nature of Fields of Transformation reflects the spirit and motivation behind much of Jongstra’s work. An artist who works in hand-felted and woven natural fibers, her installations are inspired by the beauty of nature, the tactility of raw materials, and the exploration of traditional crafts like spinning, carding, and weaving. Jongstra is committed to a sustainable chain of creation; in this spirit, she grows her own plants for dyes and maintains a flock of rare, indigenous Drenthe Heath sheep, whose wool she uses in her work. Commissioned by Gensler, the architects who designed the Moelis Grand Reading Room, and painstakingly hung in 2017, the murals’ calming character serves as an excellent complement to the serene, light-filled room that remains a favorite quiet study space on campus. 

All art--everything, for that matter--is impacted and changed by its natural surroundings. That is what makes the work of conservators like Reidell so important. And every work, because of its unique combination of materials and environment, presents unique challenges and requires its own plan for preventative conservation.

Reidell explains that conservators assess the needs of a particular work using ten classic agents of deterioration, which lay out the main types of conservation risks that all objects face. The four agents that most impact the Jongstra mural are infestation, light fading, pollutants, and physical damage from touching. “They’re like the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” Reidell laughs.

Felted wool is a natural insulator--that’s why clothes made in a similar fashion keep you so warm and dry--but that makes it particularly good at attracting dust and atmospheric pollutants that hang in the air. “All those textured surfaces provide a lot of places for dust to land. And so over time, that ambient dust can not only become unsightly, but it can also become a food source for other pests.” For similar reasons, the mural is hydroscopic, meaning it attracts and retains water. This is what causes Fields of Transformation to grow and shrink with the seasons; in the summer, when the Philadelphia air grows notoriously muggy, it becomes heavy with moisture, which dissipates in the drier months. Though the room itself, along with the rest of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, remains temperature controlled, the mere act of people letting in outside air as they walk in and out of the building, is enough to change the mural over time. 

Close up of a mural made from blue, brown, and cream wool and silk.
Close up of the mural's textured surface.

Have you ever dug a wool sweater out of the back of your closet only to discover that it’s full of holes? For centuries people have combated carpet beetles, clothes webbing moths, and other insects that eat or lay eggs in textiles. Because Fields of Transformation is made of natural fibers, Reidell is constantly engaged in this age-old battle. To hamper these infestations, Reidell plans to use pheromone traps that attract the insects away from the work before they can lay eggs.  

Visitors to the Moelis Grand Reading Room can check out some of the efforts employed to understand and diminish the impact of light and physical damage for themselves. Since 2019 Reidell has been conducting an environmental study that tracks the effects of the light-filled room on the mural. “Light damage is cumulative and irreversible,” she notes, which makes efforts to understand and estimate the rate of fading particularly important. To that end, her study includes a light logger that tracks and records the intensity of visible light in the room, as well as a blue wool card. Half of the card is covered, while the other half is exposed to the light, allowing the her to clearly observe the impact of light fading. “It’s a really good visual reminder of how much light is going in and what that could be doing to the organic materials.”

And what about people who are eager to run their fingers over the mural’s deliciously textured surface? Oils and dirt that cling to people’s hands can wreak havoc on a piece of art like this one. Those who can’t resist (or who are just curious what the mural feels like) can visit the “Please Touch” panel that hangs in the northeast corner of the reading room.

Students themselves are a vital part of this conservation process. “They become our most important eyes and ears,” says Reidell. The Moelis Grand Reading Room is a very popular space, which means that a large number of people are regularly observing a mural, and might even notice deterioration that conservation staff miss. But as Reidell notes, students also help care for the mural--by resisting the urge to touch it, keeping food and drink out of the room, and otherwise treating the artwork with care.

What, then, happened when no one was around to observe the mural? The lack of staff and students on campus during the COVID-19 shutdown presented challenges to the conservation of the mural. With most staff working remotely, some basic tasks, like the regular on-site collection of environmental data, became difficult, and the conservation team had to innovate. In response to these challenges, they moved from a system where data was stored on-site, to a cloud-based system, which now allows them to check on temperature, humidity, and other important environmental factors remotely.

 But the shutdown led to unexpected opportunities as well. The best way to combat the effects of dust and pollutants is to regularly clean the mural, but its massive size makes the prospect of doing so a particularly weighty challenge. If the piece were smaller, they might be able to take it down for cleaning, but that just isn’t practical in this instance. It is also impractical to conduct cleaning when the room is in use. With the reading room empty, a team of specialized outside conservators got to work. Under Reidell’s direction, they spent a month systematically cleaning the mural using high-efficiency vacuums and carefully removing debris from even its highest reaches near the ceiling of the Moelis Reading Room. “It was slow work, but it was very diligent work,” says Reidell. “We were really able to see how much dust had accumulated over four years.”

Even as she works to combat deterioration, Riedell remains intrigued by how Fields of Transformation will continue to, well, transform.  “It’s really fascinating. Part of that ongoing maintenance is watching it change.”

Want to learn more about Fields of Transformation? Join us next week for a virtual talk with Claudy Jongstra about her art, co-hosted by the Penn Libraries and the Arthur Ross Gallery. Register here.