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I’ve always been fascinated by the mysterious world of art conservation. It probably started with the restoration of the Sistine Ceiling back in the 80s and 90s when conservationists erected giant scaffoldings and spent years cleaning and restoring Michelangelo’s frescos.


At the time, I was jealous of that conservation team. They were as close to those frescos as Michelangelo himself. (As a self-professed art geek, I had plenty of fantasies about climbing up one of those scaffoldings myself. And in the early 90’s I was a teenager, so those fantasies were flush with excitement).

But I did not get to climb that scaffolding and stand a few inches from the Sistine Ceiling. I did not get to see into those secret spaces…

Furthermore, other conservation projects usually happen behind closed doors, too. And I am left on the outside…

Until now.

233710_3649885Right now through October 31st, you can see a real conservator working on a real modern masterpiece — right out in the open — at the Art Institute of Chicago. Conservation Life: Francis Picabia’s ‘Edtanonisl‘ takes conservation out of secret back rooms in a first-of-its-kind public demonstration of an art conservation.

I love this project for a few reasons:

On a basic level, I love the openness of it. By letting the public see a process that is usually hidden, Chicago is letting the public INTO art itself… and I love that. Anything that gets people closer to art wins my applause.

Also, deep down, I know some people don’t trust conservators to honor the artist’s intentions. By putting that process out in the open, Chicago is helping to ease that fear and build trust between conservators and the public.

I also love the “action” of this exhibit. Usually, in an art museum, we look at something that is “finished” or at least “static” (I can think of a few examples of moving/changing art, but not many. Most of the time it’s a painting, sculpture, or installation, isn’t it?) But this exhibit changes in front of us as the conservator brings the painting back to life… And that change is invigorating.

But most importantly I love this project because it sparks my imagination.

Seeing a conservator climb up on a ladder, carefully mix paint, choose a brush, and meticulously apply a brushstroke to canvas gives me a hint of how that work might have been created in the first place…

I stand there, watching the conservation, imagining what it must have felt like for Picabia to paint. I imagine why HE chose those brushes, paints, and lines… By watching someone else work on the painting, I am transported back to the past, to 100 years ago, when Picabia brought his masterpiece to life…

That imaginary journey brings me closer to the moment of creation.

And that, in turn, inspires ME to go home and create my own masterpiece.

Is it just me and my novelling brain that is automatically transported to another time and place? I don’t think so. I think we are all transported, if we allow it.

We all want to get closer to that moment of creation, don’t we? Who wouldn’t want to have been there when Munch first painted his Scream, when Leonardo first sketched Lisa, when Michelangelo put his first brushstroke on the Last Judgment?

I know I would love to have been there – and this conservation exhibit tricks my brain a bit and makes me think I am just a little closer to Picabia’s burst of inspiration…

So, go. Visit the Art Institute of Chicago. Watch the conservation and see if, when you stand there, you feel a little bit closer to the moment of creation and a little bit more inspired to go home and create something of you own.