Over the past 23 years, visitors to the DMA have witnessed the handiwork of preparator and resident mountmaker Russell Sublette without actually seeing it: the lid of an African box seems to lift as if pulled by an unseen hand, the Tiffany windows emanate a ghostly glow from within the wall into which they are built, odd-shaped objects stand straight and tall in their cases. He has made a Yoruba Egungun costume twirl and dance in the galleries, and created a mannequin support for an equestrian Madonna to ride.
“The point of the mount is to let the object speak without the mount being the center of attention,” Sublette says. “The best compliment you can give a mountmaker is ‘What a great object.’”
A 35-year veteran of the Museum, Sublette began his journey to become the DMA’s expert mountmaker in high school metal shop class. He still has a dust pan he made in 1972. After working for several years as a general art handler at the DMA, he focused his attention on making mounts with the Gold of Three Continents exhibition in 1990. A training course at Benchmark, a national company that supplies mounts and supports for museums across the country, provided him with a solid foundation and advice that he still carries with him to this day.
Sublette’s most recent handiwork can be seen (if you look closely enough) in the Behind the Scenes installation in the DMA’s new Paintings Conservation Gallery. Unframed canvases seem to float in their cases and provide visitors the opportunity to learn about painting support systems. The mount for William Henry Huddle’s Marble Falls was his favorite because it was the most challenging. Much time and effort were needed to thread the gravity clip and a triangular brace made to provide a strong structural gusset so the painting does not wobble.
The Huddle is indicative of Sublette’s process and approach to mountmaking: First he has to figure out the “key to the object”–how to mount the artwork securely in four points or less. Then he asks himself, “How do I make this mount as discrete as possible, invisible if I can?” Sublette achieves this unobtrusive subtlety by becoming an “amateur engineer” and figuring out how thin a piece of metal can be and still hold the weight of the piece securely. Thin pieces of metal can hold a lot of weight of they are bent, twisted and machined to strengthen and make them more rigid. Sublette says that mountmakers are “artists in service of art.” This particular artist’s preferred medium is brass: it’s cheaper than steel, very malleable, needs only a small oxygen tank, and produces no soot.
Sublette says he enjoys the mountmaking aspect of his job because it takes 100% engagement and allows for close contact with the art. He admits to revisiting an object 100-150 times before its mount is complete, measuring and re-measuring, memorizing each line and contour. “It’s important to take the mount to the piece and not the piece to the mount. You shouldn’t have to force a piece into an acrobatic dance to fit the mount. I’m anal as hell. But now I’m using it for the forces of good.”
Sublette also made the shell surround mounts for the pedestals for the double-sided works in the conservation gallery, including Ernst Kirchner’s Four Wooden Sculptures (recto)/ Ice Skater (verso) and Emile Bernard’s Breton Women Attending a Pardon (recto)/Unfinished Sketch (verso). A far cry from the dust pans of yore.
Reagan Duplisea is associate registrar of exhibitions at the DMA.