Arts Intern Mentors: Empowering Students to Succeed

Since 1999, Studio Institute’s Arts Intern program has provided more than 764 students with opportunities to experience arts careers through paid internships, working side-by-side with experts in the museum field. The apprenticeship model of learning, a time-honored tradition of working under the guidance of master artists and artisans, has its roots in the Late Medieval and Italian Renaissance periods. A key component of this process of learning-by-doing is mentoring.

Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with Conservation Technician of Paintings and Frames, David Piurek, at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), whose responsibilities include preparing works from the museum’s collection for loan and exhibition and repairing and maintaining frames. We wanted to learn how he came to work in this specialized field, which he’s been doing for 25 years, his role as a mentor, and how his passion for the work has enabled him to successfully share his technical knowledge and enthusiasm for the art of frame restoration with interns.

Conservation Technician of Paintings & Frames, David Piurek with Arts Intern Winston Kam
[Photo: Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art]

His career in the conservation field started, David says, upon graduating from Ringling College of Art and Design with a BFA in Fine Art Painting. Soon after earning his degree, he was hired for a year-long position as a preparator at the Ringling Museum of Art to reinstall their galleries. Recognizing his talent and potential, Chief Conservator Michelle Scalera offered him a full-time position in the Department, where he worked closely with her as a frame technician and museum gilder for the next 13 years.

David became obsessed with frame restoration and gilding, spending spare time at home experimenting to refine and perfect his technique. Gilding is the laborious and transformative process of layering gold leaf over a wood frame. First, a special glue is applied to the wood, followed by multiple applications of gesso. Sometimes decorative details are added. Next, a mixture of fine clay and glue called bole is applied; the first coat is yellow ochre, followed by red. After smoothing the surface and brushing it with water, strips of gold leaf approximately one micron thick are applied one-by-one, and the surface is burnished.

In 2012, he began working in the Conservation Lab at CMA. During his tenure, David has worked with many interns. Many of them were in the pre-conservation program, and some have gone on to become conservators. Although the museum has hosted interns through Studio Institute’s Arts Intern program every year since 2017 (with the exception of 2020), CMA welcomed the first Arts Intern to its Conservation Department in 2021.

Winston Kam, a student at Case Western Reserve University was hired as a conservation frame Intern and spent the summer working in the Lab under David’s guidance. Their partnership was so successful that the museum extended Winston’s internship into the following academic year. Learn more about his experience.

Sharing a Passion for Gilding

When asked to summarize his approach to mentoring, David described it as: “one-on-one, teaching by example with demonstrations, and sharing my passion for gilding.” Thinking back to his own days as a student and mentee, he says:

“I remember some of my favorite professors and try to emulate them by being positive, staying calm, and sharing my knowledge. I’ve been blessed by having people believe in me, taking a chance on me—my professors in art school, other scholars, and especially Michelle Scalera, who invested in me. She sent me to workshops, where I acquired the technical skills and expertise to be a gilder.

In addition, David says he knows how to convey information to people who may not necessarily have an art background and tries to make interns feel at ease as they learn. “I like to let students make mistakes and then provide feedback. I let them succeed by empowering them to make mistakes. They struggle, I provide feedback, and they learn from the experience.”

“For example,” he says, “I worked with Winston on a frame restoration project, side by side, section by section. It’s a slow and meticulous process but working together in this manner allowed for ongoing feedback and the opportunity to observe, learn, and do.

“During the gilding process, ‘laying gold’ as it’s called, we’re handling sheets of gold leaf that are approximately 1-micron thick. (As a means of comparison, the diameter of a human hair averages between 60 and 90 microns; a single sheet of 20 lb., 8.5 inch x 11 inch paper is 100 microns thick.)

“As with any craft, telling and showing are only part of the apprenticeship process. You can explain how to transfer a sheet of gold leaf onto a surface (it’s done with a very subtle flick of the wrist) and you can show someone, but it’s also something that one has to experience, fail at, and try again in order to be successful.”

Giving Back to the Community

Discussing the benefits of the Arts Intern program, David noted that internships provide students with excellent real-life experiences—what it’s like being in the working world. On a personal level, he says that working with interns is motivating; it keeps him young and engaged and has helped him hone his leadership skills.

From the perspective of the organization, he sees offering internships as a way of “giving back to the community. Not only does it bring attention to the frame lab; we’re doing our part, paying it forward. It keeps balance in the universe.”

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

In closing, we asked David to describe some of the most valuable skills students can bring to the workplace: “Personality, honesty, trust, and eagerness to learn.” He counsels students who are considering applying to the Arts Intern program to “take advantage of the opportunity, even if it’s out of your comfort zone.”

We at Studio Institute agree. For students interested in careers in the arts, an Arts Internship allows one to try out a career in an authentic work setting, which can serve as a gateway to other career options. It also offers opportunities to network and establish valuable professional connections, regardless whichever career path you may choose to pursue.

We applaud our partner organizations, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and thank them for their willingness and dedication to helping form the next generation of museum professionals.