This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“Treatment Considerations for a Newly-discovered Madonna by Martin Ramirez” by Susan M. Peckham
Susan Peckham: Good afternoon. Okay. In 2013, I was assigned this work in preparation for the Celebration of Mexico Conference at the Library of Congress. The conference focused on the Mexican cultural heritage and arts in the Unites States. Part of the celebration included the unveiling of this drawing by Martin Ramirez.
My name is Susan Peckham and I’m a paper conservator at the Library of Congress. For the next few moments, I will tell you the story of how this drawing arrived at the library. I’ll try to share some of the thoughtful collaborations that occurred as we tried to ensure that each treatment step and analysis decision was made in the best way possible.
For several months, senior archives technician Tracy Barton sorted, organized and processed the manuscripts and archival portions of the mid-century …mid twentieth century design collection of Charles and Ray Eames.
One day in September 2009 on the very bottom of an old box of Eames, Barton was surprised to find a rolled and crumpled, and very brittle, colorful drawing on what appeared to be pieced papers glued together including newspaper advertisements, mailings and envelopes. For example, here are the details of a flower of the month club, the associated envelope and a hand-written note. The largest paper fragment on the verso proved to be a rather racy advertisement for a mail ordering pictures of young women models.Yeah. Having become fairly familiar with the Eames interest over the past months, at first glance Barton thought that perhaps the drawing was by a child. The Eames collected things like that. You can see that, at first glance, you might think that too. There’s bright green trees sprouting out of the top, lots of repetition, lines, lot of undulations and movements.
However, on the verso, Barton noticed a few clues. A date of April 19, 1950. On one mailing label, and the other, and this mailing label showed an address of Auburn, California. So now a days what do folks do when you are afflicted with the need for sudden need for information? She Googled it. She Googled, and I have to say the word, she Googled outsider art, and … and Auburn, California. She found image after image showing similar lines, similar uses of lines and shape. In each case the artists name was Martin Ramirez.
There’s been quite a few papers and essays, catalogs, exhibits. Lots of information has been written about Martin Ramirez. We know a little bit about him. He left Jalisco, Mexico in 1925. He left 3 daughters and an expectant wife to go work on the railroads in Northern California, as well as the mines. It was a very bad time in Mexican history. The Cristeros Revolution was going on. The depression had happened, there wasn’t any money. He was afraid of losing the ranchero that he was saving money for in Mexico. So he did what he needed to do by coming up to the North. Unfortunately, he became very sick. According to the records, he was adjudicated insane in 1933. He went on to live in the Stockton State Hospital through the thirties and forties. Then lived the rest of his life in the new Dewitt State Hospital in Auburn, from 1948 until his death in 1963.
In retrospect, what was called catatonic schizophrenia, he might have received a different diagnosis now. He might have just been really depressed, really missed his family, missed his culture, missed his horses. He was a horse rider before he came up North. Sounded like he was probably just … well, what do I know. He seemed like he was a very sad person who was very depressed. He was also put in the tuberculosis ward, which apparently, was fairly typical to put indigent people into the tuberculosis wards. That probably would make anyone probably a little nuts.
I guess, luckily, in 1948 Dr. Tarmo Pasto, who was a psychologist who was just on the brink of the art-based therapy that was occurring in psychological areas of medicine. He started working with Martin. He was completely taken back by his need to make art constantly. We have several first hand accounts of what he was using. They can be very bizarre sounding. We have … “Ramirez collected crayons, colored pencils, water based paints, possibly shoe polish and fruit juices, which he combined together into a liquid medium that he then mixed into a homemade pot. Instead of a brush, he utilized wooden matchsticks as styluses. A tongue depressor became his straight edge”. Some of the main first-hand accounts we have are from another artist named Wayne Thiebaud. Wayne Thiebaud was actually a student of Dr. Tarmo Pasto. He visited Martin several times. He also said … Let’s see where is it? He also used several of this sort of thing. Its just a little model of arches. You can tell that he was using things that he could repeat over and over again. Wayne Thiebaud had seen him use several things like this.
So together, Dr. Pasto and several other community members, actually exhibited some of these works by Martin Ramirez “Art of the Schizophrene”. Its very upsetting, I think that just this image alone could open up all kind of discussion about what … Where does outsider art belong? Does it belong in a museum? It’s sort of like putting the insane person on exhibit. I find it really troubling.
Here are many Madonnas that he did. What’s very interesting, and when you read different art historians accounts, you get all kinds of different views. Most of these are called Madonnas and they all are very similar. They have the up-stretched arms. The hands are in the John position, what’s called the John gesture, which is holding a finger like this, which means in baptism or redemption. There’s a pal over many of their arms. There’s obviously crowns. Probably the most common feature is the globe or the orb that’s under the feet. The figure crushes the snake with it’s shoes. It turns out that the Madonna that’s still in view at the Lady of Immaculate Conception, it’s in the parish where Martin Ramirez and his wife married. It’s just a very homesick man who was drawing visions of home. All the rest of his imagery, you see little cars, trains, horse riders. They are all very common imagery throughout his works.
You’re probably wondering, okay so you know who he is and you have this work, and so who does it belong to? That became quite the question. It’s 2015, it was found in 2009. It wasn’t until 2010 where Tracy was actually going through more of the archives, she found this letter. This is the letter that sort of links it all together. This is the letter that Don Birrell, the Director of the E.B. Crocker Art Gallery wrote to Charles Eames saying, “Hey, I’ve got these images. I think you might me interested in them. Get back to me.” They didn’t come back to him. They stayed in this box. Now we know how they got to the Library of Congress. They were bequeathed with the Eames collection.
All right, so who owns it? The answer is the Eames Foundation doesn’t own it. The way the law worked in California is, once the law adjudicated that someone was insane, that meant that they could no longer own property or, therefore, give property away. He could not have given the property to the gallery, therefore, the gallery could not have given it to the Eames. So, it really still belongs to the family. The family was eager to give it to the Library of Congress for a small gift. That is how it stays at the Library of Congress.
This is the part that I get really, really excited about. I spent probably a little bit too much time on. I’m absolutely fascinated with the mark making on this piece. At first glance, when I was first assigned it, I was convinced that it had to be colored pencil, it had to be crayon, maybe it was water color. After I did all my water solubility tests and realized that everything was so incredibly, frightfully, water soluble except the orange media. I had absolutely not seen any watercolor that ever reacted exactly like this. I went back to all the sources I could find. I printed out every one of the first-hand accounts I could find, I figured if there’s a few first- hand accounts, there must be more. Somebody must have been paying attention to what he was using. I just kept finding the same sort of thing. Discarded nurses notes, magazines, newspapers, examining table covers, homemade adhesives. Was he chewing his own mashed potatoes? Was he chewing bread? Was he making his own glues? I kept coming across all these really fabulous first-hand accounts.
It seemed to me that it’d be really interesting to sort of figure this out. So many of these works are all over the United States. They look similar until you can go up and see each one of them in person. I can’t really say that other institutions have used … Their Madonnas show the same brushwork or the same mark making. However, I started fiddling. What I did was, I took matchsticks, like the first-hand account by Wayne Thiebaud. I used my wooden matchstick as a stylus. When I ran out of matchsticks, I cut thin slices of matchbook or mat board. It looked like match sticks. I started fiddling with different water color in the lab and acrylics. It wasn’t looking quite right. I did a little bit of fiddling trying to figure out what he was, how he was putting the line down.
My father suggested, when I asked him about the time period, he had memory of being in an office. Back in the day before spreadsheets, people would actually make their own posters and spreadsheets. I remember this because I used to help my dad, when I was a kid, do his. I asked him if he also did the same thing in the fifties, he did.
It turns out that the first, sort of the first generation of porous pens, were nothing really more that a glorified fountain pen that had a chunk of wool on the end of it. A little wool tip. You would open the back. You would pour your ink in. You would screw it all together again. Or you would have the kind that you would actually dip the tip into the ink bottle. It would suck it up. Now, obviously, these companies that put together these sorts of pens, they wanted you to buy their inks. Their inks were a little bit different. They were not the same thing as typical fountain pen inks. I fiddled with some of the inks that came with dry pen ink. The dry line pen that’s made by Sanford and the Flo-Master that’s made by Esterbrook. I fiddled with both of those brands. Yes, I was on eBay a lot! I have to admit it; Etsy and eBay. It’s amazing that there are all these great pieces out there. They’re not very expensive.
The marks just really seemed to work. I thought it seemed perfectly feasible to me that if I was living in a state hospital and I was just going to get materials that other people gave me, it’d be pretty easy to give someone some plain old fountain pen ink. You just fiddle with what you had. Right? You don’t have to have the exact ink. Most of these inks that come with these early pens actually are more solvent-based, like toluene or xylene. What you would think of as a precursor to a magic marker. Fountain pen inks usually had a base of ethanol or isopropenol something like that.
Okay. Here are the felt tips. Look at those great shapes. I don’t know … I made several little shapes. I tried to see if I could replicate the green. I came fairly close to replicating the green. The little sharp tip, there’s a tip that I’m not showing here. That’s a little bit sharper. It comes the closest to replicating these little red dots here. It’s just an idea. I’m probably crazy. It seems to work as one possibility, along with the pieces of mat boards, and/or match stylus, if you will.
I wanted to know, well, I was able to find a couple of these online. I wonder where else they are. Luckily, at the Library of Congress, I can look up all kinds of old magazines and periodicals. What I found was this particular issue of Office Management and Equipment from March of 1950 had a whole section of marking devices called fountain brush type. There’s lots of companies that made this sort of thing. Here’s an ad that I found. These were marketed to lots of different people. Popular Mechanics, Analytical Chemistry, School Arts, Office Management, American Artist. It really did seem like it must have been sweeping the country. There were a lot of different places you could find these. Here are some other brands.
I had to throw this in here. I couldn’t stand not to mention this little bit of trivia. Here is part of the evolution into the magic marker. Here is the earliest advertisement I could find for magic marker, it’s 1951. You can tell. We’ve gone from calling it the Flo-Master fountain brush. Then this company, Cushman and Denison changed it to felt tip pen. A couple of years … Well, this is actually fifty-one. This is fifty-nine. These words are all sort of interchangeable. That’s one little piece of useless trivia. The other thing I thought was really interesting is the word Flo-Master. I came across it a few times online. I checked with our intern from Poland. Apparently, the word Fla-Master or Flo-Master is generic for magic marker in Eastern Block countries. Apparently, these things were so ubiquitous in the 1950’s that term sort of just stuck, which I thought was kind of interesting.
What I did next is I received permission to have some analysis done. I looked at some colorants on the actual Ramirez itself. Forty-four spots were chosen to try and figure out what actually was Ramirez using. I was really lucky that this had been called for exhibit for the special show. The following December which this was a very big find for the library. People were very excited about it. I probably would not have been able to have my colleagues and research and testing spend time on this. They looked at it with x-ray fluorescence. We even had some hyperspectral imaging done. Then another scientist helped me with the adhesive analysis.
Just quickly, if you know anything about XRF, I wasn’t sure of the audience today. What XRF basically does is it’s an x-ray that hits certain elements. It excites the element in a very particular signature way and what that element emits back out is what you can see graphed. It works for elements that are heavier than carbon, so it’s not any good for compounds. If you’re trying to find something that has nitrogen or oxygen or carbon in it, it’s not going to very useful. It can be very useful when you’re trying to identify something by a metal, which is what I mean by an element. By the metal. Here are the spots that we analyzed. Here is a multispectral example. What happens with multispectral imaging is that it’s the same sort of idea where the colorants have a range of light that’s emitted on it. Different materials will emit back. Whereas here, we find out that the blue has iron in it. There’s also kind of a dark blue-gray that also has iron. We don’t know the difference of those two irons. We can tell, when we go to the multispectral,When we go back to the multispectral, both of these are blue right here.
You’re probably wondering what those two things have to do with anything. If we go across one more slide, this is laundry bluing. It was an idea that Lynn Brostoff had, she thought, “Is it possible that they could’ve been using a Prussian blue pigment?” It’s really hard to find pigment in paint media that has Prussian blue in them anymore. It’s not something that’s commonly found in a watercolor or water-based system. She had this idea. I think it’s because she’s worked with us in the graphics materials before. On the northwest coast and in the southwest, the liquid bluing that contains Prussian blue has been in the trade routes for hundreds of years. This is a really common thing. In paper conservation, we don’t run across this very often. I thought this was brilliant. The peaks are perfect. This is probably a laundry bluing that he was using. He’s obviously using whatever he can get on hand.
The other thing that I was reading about, now this is only anecdotal because I haven’t had the Raman spectroscopy, the spectra done yet. All of these very typical fountain pen inks that are called blue-blacks, they’re blue-blacks because people knew that the blue faded eventually. They still wanted it to be dark. They stuck iron gall ink in it. It could be possible that this blue back here, the dark bluest-black that you see here and here and that separates out on our multispectral or hyperspectral set. It could be iron gall.
It turns out that the pink matchstick that Wayne Thiebaud had thought might be one of the possible sources of the pink cheeks, that didn’t turn out to be. That was kind of a dead end. I thought it was worth trying since it was in the literature. When we tested the fountain inks to see if anything had similar signatures to what we found in the Ramirez itself, this is what they look like before you put them in the XRF. For the red, we had a very clear peak for bromine. The only time you really see bromine in any kind of a colorant is when you have it in red ink. I got on eBay and Etsy. I bought several brands of red fountain pen ink. It turns out that these five containers all had Eosin. They all had identical bromine peaks to the one that was in the Ramirez red. That was kind of exciting.
The next group of testing that occurred was for the adhesive testing. We had read that he had made his own adhesives. I worked with Janet Adams on this. We took samples in six different places. This is just my rough testing up here, this is just called microchemical testing. This is when you use an iodine test array. You probably all did it in high school or college. This is just the easy test. This is a negative starch test, this is positive. We just used starch paste from the lab. You can tell that sample A had some starch positive right here. Again, sample B was positive also. It was more like the known positive than the known negative. We knew that all six spots definitely had starch based adhesive. Which starch? What Janet and I did is we made all kinds of samples; mashed potatoes, tapioca, mushed up bread, macerated bread, macerated mashed potatoes. She put those three through several analyses and discovered the one that comes the closest to the Ramirez adhesives, based on the size of the starch molecules or the starch granule, it was actually masticated bread. She had her son actually chew up some of the bread to get the right size. That’s what it looked like.
Now, the treatment of this piece. Doing the analysis was really interesting, I put the actual treatment off as long as I could. For one thing, it was kind of disgusting. Did you hear me say it was covered in homemade adhesive that I thought it probably was mixed with saliva? I wanted to make sure. I’m not a queasy person. I just needed to make sure that if someone had been on the tuberculosis unit, I needed to make sure that it wasn’t still viable. It turns out, it’s not. Tuberculosis is only good on non-porous surfaces for about forty-eight hours. Maybe a month in certain situations. So, we are good there. It does turn out that you can do the assay of it and find out someone’s genetic code from the adhesive that’s on there. Not that we’d want to do that, that’s what I found out. After I got the clearance on that, I felt a little bit better.
Most of the damage for this poor thing is it’s incredibly structurally embrittled. There’s many different kinds of paper, twenty-two pieces of paper to be exact. You can tell in the raking light shot here on the left that this is actually aged in a different way from the other pieces of paper, which is very typical. Depending on what something’s made out of, it’s going to age differently than something else. I had huge losses; rodent damage, my favorite was the insect damage up and along in here. Wherever there was a really thick deposit of paste, we had a lot of insect activity. Here’s an example. I’m just testing the colorants under the microscope before I start humidifying and flattening. On the left is just a very basic humidification, an overall humidification. It’s hard in a way. You probably think I’m crazy because I’ve been moving the slides back and forth. So much of this process was do a little bit of this. Then go back and do a little of this. First it had to be humidified enough to mend a certain area. Then certain areas had to be mended so you could humidify more. It was a back and forth sort of effort.
The last part of this treatment, there were three major kinds of losses. There were losses in the physical support and the overlying media. There were losses in the media itself where the insects had just grazed the color off. Then, of course, there was the structural distortions that I showed you in the raking light shot. I went back to crayons when I was getting ready to make the fills. It looked like crayon to begin with and I didn’t really want to start using inks. I want to be really clear here. When I’m talking about making a fill, I’m not talking about putting a media on the object itself. I’m talking about putting media on the paper fills that are going to go into the holes. No media went onto the object only onto the fills. Everything I did was in very close collaboration with Katherine Blood.
This drawing ended up transferring over to Prints and Photographs since they had the, sort of the flat art collection of the Eames collection. Since it was no longer deemed part of the Manuscript and Archives Collection, it left Manuscripts and went to Prints and Photographs. Then I began working with the Prints and Photographs curator. The one thing that didn’t work it’s crazy. I bought the biggest box of crayon I could that had all these different shades of blue in it. They didn’t work. There was not one modern blue that matched the blues in this object. Everyone thought I was totally crazy. I tried watercolor. I tried acrylic. I was dragging my little pieces of map board everywhere. I was trying to get the right marks to make the fills in this thing. I went back to good old eBay again. I purchased a couple boxes of old crayons. Guess what? The blues that matched perfectly are one that’s called Dark Blue and a couple that are Prang colors, perfect, perfect match. This is just me fiddling with which marks make the best blue.
What you’re seeing here is a loss in the media layer. There’s no loss in the paper. If it is, it’s residual. In order to make a fill there, I couldn’t just fill it with a heavy piece of paper like I might if in a loss that was in a larger piece of the heavier paper. What I was using is, I was using a very thin Japanese tissue called gampi. I was using my crayon marks on the gampi. Then doing some needle splitting to make these very thin little fills and what you’re seeing here is a spatula and a little brush with methyl cellulose to put down this fill. You can see here I’m patting it into place. This whole area had lots of losses in it.
Here’s the before and after just so you can get a sense. The other important part of this treatment was that it was really important to Katherine that I not try to make up any imagery. I didn’t, we don’t know if this was a deer or a rabbit and I wasn’t going to try drawing ears to figure it out. I tried to just make a very nice toned area that blended with everything else and left the identity of the animal to Martin.
The next part of this object, I probably would have just stopped here. As what happens in museums and libraries, I had discussed with the curators that when this was going to be exhibited for the Celebration of Mexico, it was going to be exhibited flat. It’s very fragile. It just didn’t seem to be a very good idea to put it more than about ten or fifteen degrees to the normal. If this is the normal, it would be no more than this, that was not what they wanted, they wanted it hung vertically. We made hinges out of Japanese tissue. Hinges were attached around the edge of the object. However, if you can picture again, here is the raking light shot. Just because we flattened this object, the best what we really did is this. When you have something that is this wrinkly and has paper that’s stretched in some areas and shrunk in other areas, you have to redistribute the forces or the stresses so that. That becomes part of what we do as being sort of a art fill thing. You have to try to put these creases where have to put a crease somewhere because you have extra paper. You want to put it someplace where it’s going to cause the least amount of damage and put the least amount of stress on very vulnerable areas. That’s what you’re looking at here. This is before raking. This is the raking light shot of before the humidifying and flattening steps. Here is is afterwards. It’s right before we started applying the hinges. This is a very vulnerable area. What I did is, we would put a hinge here and here. Then it would support this area up so that it was in a much more stable up position.
I don’t if that makes sense. I made this schematic. In Step one, you apply your hinges all the way around. Your bigger hinges, up here at the top. If you can visualize if the is the back of your object. You’re going to flip it over now. You’re flipped over. Now you’re going to cut a new secondary just a few millimeters smaller all the way around the center from the object. That’s what you see here. Here we are turning all the hinges up under. That’s what you’re seeing here too. Once this was on it’s board, we attached it to the back mat. This secondary and tertiary support was the solution for trying to get this thing in vertical position.
This was a really wonderful experience. It’s a good treatment for what we’re discussing here today. When someone said that the original definition of outsider art is someone who is insane, I thought “Me, me, me.” I have that. It’s just what this person worked through. He was doing his own therapy. He was working through his own issues. It seems so obvious to me that he was trying so hard to be home and take care of his sadness.
The stamps. Buy the stamps. March 26th. Martin Ramirez stamps are coming out at the Post Office.
Surviving works by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez are few, numbering in the hundreds; drawings and collages dating before 1953 are even scarcer. In 2009, a Library of Congress archivist found what is considered the fifteenth known drawing of a Madonna by outsider artist, Martín Ramírez, during routine collection processing. With the large drawing support assembled from the blank sides of 22 pieces of junk mail including gardening advertisements and deconstructed business envelopes, a black-inked postal cancellation stamp provides the 1951 time frame and the Auburn, California location.
Entering the United States from Mexico in 1925, Martín Ramírez labored for the California railroad and mining industries into the 1930s, when suffering from a range of illnesses, he was hospitalized. He remained in the California public hospital system for the rest of his life. During the late 1920s Ramírez began to draw using found materials; in 1948 psychologist and art professor Tarno Pasto began to supply Ramírez with artist materials; and in the early 1950s, Pasto received funding to exhibit several of Ramírez’ works.
Ramírez’ images typically contain repetitive shapes and concentric waves in the form of hills and valleys, roads, and what appears in many instances to be railroad tracks. Figures are religious, human, and animal, seemingly pulled from his life experiences such as the cultural and religious iconography he would have absorbed from a childhood and adulthood spent in Tepatitlán, Jalisco, Mexico, including his local church, and later experiences working on the railroads and mines in the United States. The Library of Congress Untitled (Madonna in landscape with cars), ca. 1951 depicts a crowned Madonna figure rising up out of a tunnel, surrounded by what appears to be curving roadways complete with small cars. The Madonna figure stands directly on a large blue globe, with a snake curled at her feet. Her arms are raised in the orans position, with upper arms close to body and hands outstretched. The hands are positioned with index fingers each pointing upward. The Madonna figure is clothed in traditional, Mexican dress including a colorfully-striped blouse, puffed sleeves, and peplum skirt, together with a striped rebozo (long, flat garment worn by Mexican women) or pall (funerary cloth associated with death or the Christian Easter holiday) hanging from her upturned arms.
When discovered at the Library of Congress, the Ramírez’ Untitled (Madonna in landscape with cars) was in very poor condition. Having been rolled previously, the then-flattened cylinder of paper showed multiple long tears and large fractured areas where the varying support papers had aged differently. Additionally, the work showed extensive loss in the support and media layers due to insect damage. To determine the best approach to conservation treatment for such a unique work, honoring the artist’s intent and choices was foremost in decision-making. Generally, the main conservation challenge included balancing stabilization treatment with overall legibility. Treatment techniques and conservation materials were chosen that allowed the work to be structurally sound and visually unified.
Though the colored media on Untitled (Madonna in landscape with cars) appeared initially to be rendered in watercolor, crayons, and/or colored pencils over graphite under drawing, preliminary analyses at the Library of Congress reveal other possibilities. Firstly, a survey containing all published first-hand accounts from the nurses, doctors, artists, and visiting students regarding Ramírez’ working methods was conducted. Media and adhesive use, as well as methods of media application were noted. Secondly, samples of the handmade, masticated pastes were taken from the verso for identification, and using non-destructive methods of analysis, elemental analysis of all media was performed. Using known vintage media samples were then used for comparison.
This talk will include discussions regarding a plausible scenario of Ramírez’ working methods and likely materials and media used as determined through personal observation, examination, and published first-hand accounts; how compensation of lost media and significant structural losses were guided by curatorial input, including whether to fill or inpaint and to what extent to leave existing losses intact; and the history of and circuitous route taken by the Ramírez drawing before and after arriving at the Library of Congress.
Susan Peckham has worked as a Senior Paper Conservator in the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress since 2006. She holds a Masters of Art and Certification of Advanced Study in Conservation from the State University College of New York at Buffalo and in the past has been employed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Smithsonian Institution, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Her areas of interest and research include iron gall ink treatment, the use of standard office materials as artistic media, and public outreach. Besides treating works on paper for standing collections, exhibition and loan, she acts as liaison for the Music and Prints and Photographs Divisions.