“Lowinger calls her book a “love story” to the profession of conservation, but it is also a guide to examining the Jewish past, understanding loss and appreciating the ways people and individuals can emerge stronger and sometimes more beautiful after decades of wear and tear. ”
— Andrew Silow-Carroll, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
“Rosa Lowinger’s Dwell Time is the story of a family, a mother-daughter relationship, but forged of what seems like new building materials entirely. An artist has many duties, among them to conserve the traditions and innovations of the past but also to “make it new.” This memoir does just that, and delivers on its final promise, that of repair.”
— Gary Shteyngart, the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Little Failure and novels that include Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan, and Our Country Friends
“In Dwell Time, art conservator Rosa Lowinger delves deep into a profound insight lying at the heart of her profession: when you understand how something got broken, you cannot help but soften to it. And when you soften to the damage done to an object of art, you soften to the damage others have done to you. Bit by bit, you begin to let go of the pain of the past, learning to live more fully in the present. Deeply personal and profoundly moving, Dwell Time transcends the field of art conservation, applying its lessons to family and beyond.”
— Barry C. Michels, LCSW, JD, bestselling author of The Tools and Coming Alive
“Dwell Time evokes a visceral, vibrant, complex materiality. Lowinger brilliantly unlocks the stories that reside in the material. This book is as intellectually engaging as it is profoundly moving.”
— Dana Spiotta, author of Wayward, a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of the Year
“It’s no exaggeration to call [Dwell Time] a work of genius. Rosa Lowinger has reinvented the genre of memoir writing, crafting a story that is deeply moving and wonderfully unique. Weaving together her vast knowledge as an art conservator with the haunting intergenerational trauma of her Cuban Jewish family, she reveals how even when our world feels broken, repair is still possible. In dialogue with Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, this brilliant, beautiful book takes the reader on a journey from LA to Miami to Rome to Cuba to Haiti to Hawaii and other destinations, as Lowinger keeps seeking ways to fix things that seem damaged beyond hope. In the process she finds love and forgiveness and learns how to fix the fissures in her own heart. A stunning achievement!”
— Ruth Behar, author of Letters from Cuba and Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan
“Dwell Time is a multi-generational family memoir that reads like a panoramic, deeply moving roman-fleuve—taking the reader from Eastern Europe through Havana, Miami, Manhattan and Los Angeles, amid revolution, war, upheaval and exoduses. That it’s written by a revered conservator of art makes perfect sense, because Lowinger’s profession has given her a complex understanding of the past, of the contingencies of history, of the differences between surface and interior. One of art conservation’s creeds is: “You can’t repair what you don’t understand.” This beautiful book is an act of understanding as a work of art.”
— Randy Kennedy, bestselling author of Presidio
“After a lifetime of restoring works of art, Rosa Lowinger turns her good hands to examine a life rent by exile and loss. A lyrical and moving memoir of art, family, and the flawed material out of which we make and remake our lives. A gorgeously written tribute to an extraordinary family and a reminder that with patience and attention we may yet repair – if not the world – at least the luminous fragment that belongs to us.”
— Ana Menendez, author of Loving Che and The Apartment
“An insightful tale that reveals a kaleidoscope of worlds that Lowinger navigates to chart a life in colors and materials, joys and calamities, rendering lives that were forced into exile many times but always eager to build a sense of home and purpose. A moving account filled with the eccentricities of life, family, and the love of something (and its preservation) that is sometimes beyond words.”
— Hrag Vartanian, Co-founder & Editor-in-chief: Hyperallergic
An Interview with Rosa Lowinger, author of DWELL TIME:
A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair
(Row House Publishing, October 10, 2023)
photo by Scarlett Freund
1. What made you decide to write a memoir and share your story?
In 2009, when I had the Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, I came across the memoir The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. As I read the way he structured a family story around the metaphor of chemistry, I realized that I had a similar book in me, about conservation. Initially, I thought of it entirely as a way of showing the world what the conservation field is all about, because there are no books out there AT ALL that display our work in a way that is true and makes sense. Our profession is rife with powerful
metaphors about damage and repair, and I felt that telling that story would resonate with so many people. I thought about this book for years and years but put it on the back burner as I built a business, which is now the U.S.’s largest woman-owned materials conservation practice. Then, the pandemic happened. Suddenly I found myself with time to write and reflect. I began a novel, hired a writing coach to help me structure it, and out of the blue I mentioned this idea for a memoir. She said, “stop everything and write that book proposal.” As I began to unpack the conservation material, a story about my family burbled through the narrative. It centered around my troubled, volatile, and extremely abandonment-averse mother. I realized that our family’s loss of Cuba, a country that my grandparents had moved to in the 1920s traumatized my family irrevocably and made my parents difficult to live with. As I wrote, I began to see the healing metaphor within this subject matter as a way to understand my family history of double exile. Art Conservation teaches us that the basis of all repair is understanding the source of damage. My goal with this memoir was to use this knowledge I have to unravel and learn to understand the intergenerational trauma at the foundation of our family life.
2. What is the definition of Dwell Time and why did you pick it as the title for your memoir?
In conservation, the term dwell time refers to the amount of contact time a chemical material needs to work. It is a measure of action on something you are trying to remove— soap on dirt, solvent on a stain, paint stripper on a varnish. The term dwell time also refers to the total time a person spends in an airport, or looking at a web page, or the time a family lingers at a border, waiting to get into a country, or the time you live
in a city before moving on. I chose this title because it perfectly describes how I was trying to clean away the murkiness that made my family difficult to understand. Metaphorically, Dwell Time can also mean the amount of time you need to work on a problem. As I write in the book: We repair and make reparations by taking the risk of going past our own immediate emotions. Acting is its own salvation. You take the harsh decision or material, blend it into a gel, and watch the magic happen. The content of this book is like one of those solvent gels. That’s my hope, anyway.
3. What exactly is an art conservator and why did you pursue this career? How is it connected to your personal history?
Materials conservators (this term is more esoteric, but it’s used to include both art and architecture) repair, preserve, and perform preventive maintenance and basically enhance the longevity of all built heritage, which includes artworks, natural history collections, books, media, film, sculpture, paintings, murals, textiles, costumes, tapestries, archeological sites, and historic buildings and their materials. Our work blends art, science, and good hand skills. We are trained in the science of chemical deterioration and repair, and we work within specialties, like doctors. In public building restoration projects, for example, we are the ones who determine how stone or metals are treated, how terrazzo floors are repaired and salts leaching through tiles are addressed, yet we are often relegated to the sidelines and the architects get all the credit, even though they do not have the technical knowledge about materials that we have. In art, the curators,
gallerists and fabricators get all the attention, yet it is only we (conservators) who know what to do when someone puts their elbow through a painting, or an outdoor sculpture starts to rust. I pursued this career because I fell into it. I was studying art and not very good at it. A professor recommended the field to me. I got into grad school by default and found that the field dovetailed with my sensibilities. It was all a bit subconscious I imagine. As a conservator, you are a servant to a work of art, never the protagonist. It’s got an odd humility to it, work done in the service of someone else’s aesthetic. I was raised to be beholden to others’ visions, my mother especially.
4. You left Cuba when you were four years old and returned for the first time thirty years later to attend a preservation conference in Old Havana. What was the significance of this trip? How is Cuba so closely aligned with your work?
The significance was monumental. My entire life shifted. I began going to Cuba as often as possible. It was all I wanted to do. Seeing the extraordinary historic fabric of Havana and Cuba- the amazing materials, all needing repair-was a seismic shift in my attention. I was trained to do exactly what Cuba needed. And, I had never known anything about the historic buildings there – the 500 continuous years of architectural history in tile, stone, metal and wood. 99% of Cuba’s buildings are historic and every single one needs work. And yet… the embargo and the U.S. relations with Cuba make it impossible for me to work there.
5. You write in your memoir, “Being a Cuban exile made me into a hyper-outsider, someone separated from the others by a steel trap door of misunderstanding born of the political situation.” Please explain.
Cuba and the U.S. are sworn enemies and Cuban Americans are the reason for this six- decades-long embargo. It’s all about Florida politics. Florida is a big swing state, and hardline B.S. about Cuba being a terrorist nation, etc., wins votes from the strong Cuban voting bloc. The U.S. has relations with Vietnam and China, but not Cuba. It makes no sense. When the Soviet Union controlled Cuba, travel by Americans, especially Cuban Americans, was highly restricted. When the Soviet Union fell, and Americans, including Cuban exiles began traveling there in more significant numbers. We were like hyper
outsiders because we knew so little about the country compared to other Latin Americans, who had been going back and forth with ease. It is an odd situation that all immigrants from communist regimes understand.
6. DWELL TIME focuses on your relationship with your mother. Describe the impact immigrating from Eastern Europe to Cuba had on your mother, how her trauma was passed down to you and ultimately shaped your relationship with her.
My mother and father were born in Cuba. Their parents were the Eastern Europeans who came to Cuba. My parents thought of themselves as 100% Cuban, but also Jewish. My mother’s trauma comes from her abandonment and losing her mother at birth. She was partially raised in an orphanage. I believe she has a personality disorder born of trauma, like Borderline Personality Disorder. I don’t name it in the book because I’m not a
psychologist. She was very poor growing up. She married my father in part because of his stable financial life. They fell in love later. When the Cuban revolution happened, and they lost everything, she was re-traumatized. She was always anxious, angry, nervous. And in the U.S., she took all of this out on me. She was, quite frankly, abusive. I don’t use that word either in the book because it’s facile and also because she is alive, and I don’t want to hurt her. My father’s father was similar in temperament to her, and he remained stuck in a pattern with her, unable to leave her, and I was actually deeply grateful that he never did, because if he abandoned her, life would have been a true living hell. That said, my mother is extraordinarily loving, brilliant, cunning as hell, hilariously funny, but she has a virulent dark side and can turn on a dime. I walked on eggshells my entire life. I still do. Less so, but still. Writing has helped me heal a lot.
7. You write in your memoir, “Mistakes are devastating to conservators. We rarely talk about them. Failure is not built into our practice.” Explain what you mean both professionally and personally.
Think of doctors. They’re trained to heal patients, not hurt or kill them; however, everyone makes mistakes eventually. You prescribe the wrong medicine, you fail to see a contraindicator. In our field it is a similar practice. Your hand slips with the scalpel and a marble sculpture gets scratched. Or a piece falls off your worktable and breaks, or a material looks like one thing and it’s actually another. That’s what I write about– a pigment that looked like one thing but was something else, which led to it falling off during treatment. As a person, I hate failure also, but who doesn’t? But conservation teaches me that we are always balancing how far we go with anything. I failed at two
partnerships, one close work relationship and one marriage. And I have bounced back from all of them, in part, by recognizing where I was responsible. In the book, I focus on my own complicity in the failures that affected me. It’s always easy to blame someone else, but owning failure is incredibly empowering. Our field is scared of it, I think.
8. What was your biggest success in your career? Your biggest failure?
My biggest success was building RLA Conservation, the firm I founded and currently work for, into the largest woman-owned firm in the U.S., making it also one of the most
diverse firms in the U.S., and then having a new generation of owners who want to keep it going. We’re known nationwide for our excellence and as a great place to work. I love having built that. And of course, we’ve worked on many, many cool projects for historic buildings and artworks, like the mosaic on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Watts Towers, works by Damien Hirst, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and art by every major sculptor of the modern era. Failures… I write about one damage to an artwork. I also was unsuccessful at treating other things here and there. And of course, failing at work relationships. In my early years, I was an anxious boss, yelling at people, always stressed. I see that as a failure, but from that failure and others like it, I learned to mend myself.
9. You write towards the end of DWELL TIME, “Our people, nuestra gente Cuban and Jewish alike, did not abandon our parents.” Please explain.
In some ways it’s a generalization, but I was taught that Cubans, Latinos, Jews… we are all family oriented. We don’t abandon our parents, even when they are difficult. We may put in distance if wellbeing calls for it, but we try to remain present. To do that, one has to be mindful and patient. Some people sublimate their own desires to care for their parent, but understanding their brokenness makes it not only easy but also a source of growth.
10. What do you hope readers will take away from your memoir?
Courage and optimism. Damage is inevitable, but repair is always possible. Human beings are natural repairers. And things (objects, relationships) that are mended can be dearer than those that were never broken. Love is a phenomenal adhesive. One has to learn how to use it properly, but if we begin to understand the exhilarating possibility of restoration, we can deal with each other with gentleness, with care, and as beautiful, bruised creatures that deserve tenderness. I hope that this memoir opens dialogues about community repair and reparations as well as personal action.