In the Studio with Mimi Herbert

Simona Cristanetti, sculpture conservator, dusts Butterfly during the installation of the exhibition.

Mimi Herbert’s acrylic sculpture Butterfly, 2021, is among the works featured in Pour, Tear, Carve: Material Possibilities in the Collection. The fabrication process of this striking work intrigued museum staff. As part of an ongoing initiative to document the materials and techniques of works entering the collection, conservators and curators were pleased to conduct an interview with Herbert in January 2023. The interviews allow museum staff to learn more about the artists’ practice and assist conservators in developing plans for the care of works of art. The group was given a comprehensive tour through Herbert’s three-room studio and was introduced to her process, which included participating in the creation of a sculpture.

Paper maquette indicating dimensions and where folds will be made.

Herbert conceives her idea for a sculpture first by working with a paper maquette. During this phase, she determines the size of the sheet of acrylic that will be needed, and where the folds will be made.

Herbert with different colored sheets of acrylic against the wall that she obtains from a California supplier.

The acrylic is cut to the dimensions needed following the designs that she makes using the maquettes. The sheet is then laid on top of a custom-built table with a bank of heat lamps to soften different sections of the acrylic where she plans to make folds. Above, the right side of the orange piece of acrylic is being heated in order to be manipulated after becoming pliable.

Heating the acrylic sheet

Herbert observes the section of acrylic after being heated for a short time to see if it is malleable enough to fold. Phillips staff (left to right: curator Renee Maurer, conservator Lilli Steele, and curator Camille Brown) stand ready to assist the artist. Because of the intense light and heat, the artist and any assistants always wear dark goggles and heat resistant gloves for protection.

Moving the acrylic sheet

When the sheet is sufficiently softened, it is removed from the heat and placed on a worktable.

Folding the acrylic sheet

Herbert demonstrates how she makes the first fold, smoothing the heated edge of the acrylic with a soft cloth. The acrylic sheet cools and becomes unworkable in less than a minute so the artist and her assistants must work quickly.

Mimi Herbert, Durga Reclining, 2023

Several weeks later, the work that began with Phillips staff participation, entitled Durga Reclining, was completed by Herbert and her studio assistants. The painstaking complexity of her process can be fully appreciated after having followed her steps from inception of the piece through folding and manipulating the warmed acrylic sheets to arrive at beautiful abstract sculptures.

Focus on Collections Care for Sculptures

Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele shares some recent improvements to collections care management.

Transferring sculpture into the new storage space

Our new custom-built museum quality cabinets in the Phillips’s recently installed in the main art storeroom ensures the preservation of the sculptures in our permanent collection. Pictured above, Yacine Fall (contract art handler) passes Organic Construction No. 9 , a 1961 welded steel work by Richard Hunt to Simona Cristanetti (sculpture conservator) to place safely in its new home. Compared to the older, less-used storeroom, their transfer to the upgraded storage space also improves the accessibility of the sculptures for review by conservators, curators, and installations staff.

Conducting a condition check on our sculptures

The more convenient location makes Ms. Cristanetti’s job to conduct a condition survey of nearly 150 sculptures more efficient. She is preparing written and photographic documentation of their condition and a treatment proposal that will guide the future care of each work. When last evaluated by conservation in 1996, the Phillips only owned 48 three-dimensional objects, meaning we tripled our sculptural holdings in 25 years. Pictured above, Greg Jallat (who recently joined the Conservation/Registration Departments as the Collections Care and Visual Resources Manager) works with the conservator to determine the best practices for housing these works while in storage.

The Richard Hunt sculpture is a recent gift of Phillips family members Alice Phillips Swistel, James Laughlin Phillips, and Marjorie Phillips Elliot. Funding for the improved housing, state-of-the-art storage cabinets and the condition survey has been provided by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

A Technical Examination of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers

In 2019, Smithsonian American Art Museum conservator Gwen Manthey and researcher Sydney Nikolaus examined the Phillips’s work Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers by Alma Thomas. Read an excerpt from their report to learn about Thomas’s process and join us on January 13 for a talk with Gwen Manthey and Amber Kerr.

In 2019, the Smithsonian American Art Museum began analyzing 40 of Alma Thomas’s paintings, including works from its own collection, The Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the National Gallery of Art. Research focused on the tools and techniques that Thomas employed throughout her career from the early 1950s to her death in 1978. Using a modified Nikon D810 digital multispectral imaging camera that captures images across the electromagnetic spectrum, conservators identified the art materials and determined the layering construction of Thomas’s paintings. On November 18, 2019, SAAM conservator Gwen Manthey and researcher Sydney Nikolaus examined Thomas’s acrylic painting Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers at The Phillips Collection.

Figure 1 (left) Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, normal light illumination, and 2 (right) verso.


They gleaned new information using infrared reflectography (IRR), a process where infrared wavelengths penetrate paint layers and are absorbed by carbon-containing pigments and drawing media, and then reflected by underlayers of white ground and paint. They learned that Thomas defined each color row in Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers by drawing vertical lines with a sharp graphite pencil on the prepared canvas. The evenness of these lines (spaced 1 inch apart), guided by short tick marks, suggest the use of a straight edge ruler (Figure 3a-b). Thomas also made straight lines at the inner top, left, and right edges of the painting’s edge to indicate the perimeter of the composition.

Figure 3 (left) infrared reflectograph overall image. Details in normal light (A) and IR (B) show Thomas’s graphite pencil lines for each vertical row of color pats.


Using UVA-induced luminescence from a Labino UV Light, the conservators found a strong autofluorescence in the rich orange paint that Thomas applied in several of the orange rows seen in the top right corner of the painting. This provides more insight into how Thomas layered her paint pats in each row (Figure 5).

Figure 4 (left), detail of top-right corner in normal light and 5 (right) in UVA-induced luminescence. The strong autofluorescence of the orange paint reveals how Thomas layered several of her rows.


Thomas chose a basket-weave medium weight fabric with an average thread count of 36 x 32 threads/inch for her canvas; it is attached to the stretcher with staples (Figure 6). The stretcher consists of four wooden stretcher bars, with mitered slot and tenon joints, and a horizontal crossbar. Impressed stamps (Anco bilt, Glendale, N.Y. and Grumbacher Artists’ Materials, New York) shown in Figure 7, were found on the stretcher bars. Each join contains a pattern of four large holes (Figure 7), possibly the location of previous metal plates added by the artist to increase the strength of the support; they have since been replaced by keys fixed with cord and screws. The painting’s verso contains several inscriptions by the artist in a black felt-tipped marker, her signature, the title, date, and dimensions of the work (Figure 2). The artist wrote “TOP” in a white paint or acrylic primer.

Figure 6 (left), detail of top-right corner tacking edge and 7 (right) of the same corner shown on the verso.


The painting is comprised of vertical rows of colorful acrylic paint, applied by brush, on top of the white ground. Examination of the painting’s edges show that the ground was applied by the artist. The ground has seeped through the canvas in some areas of the verso (Figure 7). Thomas applied additional layers of paint to several of her color rows. Often, they match the initial color, but there are instances where Thomas layered a different color such as blue gray over green and blue paint pats. The paint pats are formed from multiple brushstrokes, measuring about an inch wide. Thomas used a thinner brush to reinforce the white spacing between the pats with white paint. There are many downward drips of paint located between the yellow rows (Figure 8) and in the nearby orange row (Figure 9). The downward paint drips shown in Figures 8-9 indicate that Thomas did not work flat and that she watered-down her acrylic paints.

Figure 8 (left), detail of downward paint drips in the yellow center rows and 9 (right) in the orange center row.

To learn more about Thomas’s process, join us for a conversation with Gwen Manthey and conservator Amber Kerr on Janaury 13 at the Phillips about their research.