Written By Lisa Breslin, Photos by: Walter Calahan
Practicing like a skilled surgeon, McDaniel College’s art conservator, Katya Dovgan Mychajlyshyn, has treated and saved hundreds, if not thousands, of works of art.
Each work is precious to her. Whether it is the portrait of Magdalena Speciana, created by the celebrated Spanish-Portugese painter Alonso Sanches Coello, a predecessor of Velasquez, or a painting by someone’s aunt that had collected dust in an attic for eons, Mychajlyshyn knows that the works have lives of their own and were created using techniques mastered by their original artists.
Her job is to revive the details in that life and restore the artist’s voice.
Mychajlyshyn approaches art restoration the way many doctors approach their patients.
“I think to myself, ÔDo no harm,’” she said. “Be aware that every treatment can be harmful. I use the least invasive method possible.”
Over the years, Mychajlyshyn’s restoration and conservation work has included a series of larger-than-life 18th-century portraits of Ukrainian state and religious dignitaries, now on display in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Kyiv, Ukraine, as well as portrayals of Greek mythology in 16th-century stucco relief that ornament a castle in Ingolstadt, Germany.
“I try to make my own presence known as little as possible,” she said. “It’s not about the conservator; it’s not about me. It’s about the person’s painting – and the person painting.”
Mychajlyshyn credits a “rigorous, wonderful education” in the national Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and her home city, as the source for many of her artistic skills, but the true launch for her illustrious career rests with her family.
“Art, music, poetry, cultural events and weekend picnics were woven into the fabric of our family,” said Mychajlyshyn.
Her father, Borys Dovgan, is a sculptor; her mother, Margarita Dovgan, is a journalist, and her daughter, Stefania Dovhan, is an opera singer who captured audiences at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore in April as as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.
Mychajlyshyn is a senior lecturer of art and art history at McDaniel College. She came to the campus in 1998 to restore a 1903 copy, by Luise Thompson, of an 1870 German oil painting titled “Christ and a Young Rich Ruler,” in the college’s small chapel. Her talents, including teaching, were quickly discovered and she never left.
“For my honors project at McDaniel, I worked with Katya for almost a year helping to restore two paintings,” said Laura Diller, a 2005 McDaniel graduate who is now the arts curator at the Lutz Children’s Museum in Manchester, CT. “One, a painting of Napoleon on a horse, was very large and took many hours of work to complete,” said Diller. “Katya has incredible patience and skill. It was remarkable to see the transformation that the paintings went through as we worked.”
Skills as an artist are only part of the talent needed to return life to works of art. Think art historian, researcher, chemist, forensic scientist, and you might be a little closer to understanding the scope of her skill set.
Mychajlyshyn’s mission is to enable each work of art to exist longer.
“Time is like a sieve with large holes, and some of the finest details run through it,” she explained. “I try to catch those small details and bring them back.”
Like a doctor, Mychajlyshyn has to put her ego aside.
“If the ego comes first, you get undesirable results. I have to remain constantly present,” Katya added. “But the paintings, the artists’ voices, have to be what is revived; what is appreciated once again.”
Mychajlyshyn’s work on the 94-year-old copy at McDaniel, for example, involved cleaning and reproducing complete sections of the work that had been damaged by a leak in the roof. She reconstructed portions of the painting from remaining paint chips.
“Each restoration is incredibly rewarding,” said Mychajlyshyn. “I expect complications; I know I will spend more time than initially estimated, but in the end, the final touch – the varnish, the curing and the touch-ups – it’s very exciting.”