Masselink’s Painted Screen Conservation Completed
Pat Evans | Mar 21, 2023
The image at the top shows some of the accumulated effects of exposure, deposition of surface grime, and staining from water damage needing to be addressed.
As Registrar at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, I have the honor of caring for the Collections at both Taliesin and Taliesin West, a selection of which are on display throughout both sites. The Garden Room here at Taliesin West is filled with artworks collected by the Wrights, gifts from their friends, and artworks by members of the Fellowship. Among those is a screen by Eugene (Gene) Masselink (1910-1962), a talented young artist who joined the Fellowship in 1933 after graduating from Ohio State University. Gene had invited Wright to speak at the university, and Wright apparently had quickly recognized his abilities when they met. Although he had no secretarial skills, upon his arrival Wright quickly appointed him his secretary, a position he held until Wright’s death in 1959.
When not at his typewriter, Masselink drew and sketched and painted. Inspired by Wright’s emphasis on looking to nature, he experimented and his early painterly style evolved into more abstract nature studies using architectural tools—T-square, compass, and triangle.
Masselink’s five-panel folding screen in the Garden Room is an abstract pattern of rock lichen painted on plywood. Photographs of the Garden Room first show the screen in place near the fireplace in the 1950s. But while recently doing research on Masselink, I found in our Preservation Master Plan a photograph of him working on this screen outside his room at the foot of the breezeway stairs. The photograph is dated ca 1940, (which leaves us wondering where it was for a decade) and demonstrates how early he moved into abstraction.
This screen has been continuously in the Garden Room since the 1950s and the accumulated effects of exposure, deposition of surface grime and staining from water damage needed to be addressed. Our recent photography exhibition “Sacred Spaces: Frank Lloyd Wright x Andrew Pielage” provided the opportunity to have this work done when we removed it to accommodate several of the photographs. Our long-time conservator and former Board Chair, T.K. McClintock, generously undertook this work to address the water damage that over time had caused vertical streaks throughout and tidemarks at the bottom of the screen.
The cleaning caused by the water left a lighter surface area within the darker surrounding tidemarks. Following reduction of the staining as possible, he used a revived conservation method traditionally used on Asian paintings called su-su. Old papers are boiled in water and filtered to render a brown colored extract that can be applied to reduce the contrast, but unlike watercolor su-su is a retouching medium that is comparatively reversible when used on absorbent surfaces because of the lack of pigments. Applying just a little of this in thin layers, the lightened area was darkened to more closely match the surrounding space leaving uniform color.
Getting the conserved screen back and reinstalling it in the Garden Room was magical. I’d seen the “after” photographs but seeing the screen again in person made me appreciate Masselink’s creative work and TK’s expertise even more.
I hope you’ll be able to visit Taliesin West soon to see the Garden Room with Masselink’s painted screen.