Alumni Profile/Journey to SoHo, Pathway to Africa

Donna Page: “When performing restoration, you have to know what not to do, and when to hold back.”
Donna Page: “When performing restoration, you have to know what not to do, and when to hold back.”

It was a want ad that set Donna Page ’61 on the unexpected path to her life’s work. The Green Bay native who began her career as an elementary school teacher is now world-renowned as a restorer of African art.

Page moved from the Midwest to Manhattan in 1979, seeking a fresh start after a stint in academia. She says she found a cheap loft and “applied for every job listed in the New York Times.”

Several rejections into her search, she saw a posting for an assistant at the L. Kahan Gallery of African Art. Its owner, Leonard Kahan, hired and mentored her, teaching her about the art of different African cultures. Aided by Kahan’s large library and sculpture collection, Donna learned to identify the origins of pieces in the collection. She also became proficient at conserving and restoring damaged wood and terracotta objects. Soon Page was supplementing her work at the gallery with a viable business restoring art for private clients.

By 1987, Page was writing catalogue essays on African art exhibitions and curating exhibitions herself, becoming an authority on the subject. She co-authored and co-edited the book “Surfaces: Color, Substances and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture” (2009). Currently, she is working on a new book about African art, to be published in 2015.

Page grew up on the west side of Green Bay, back when it was farmlands and fields. She says she was always interested in art and that her parents encouraged her creativity. Her undergraduate education “provided an entry into educational and professional endeavors, and created friendships that continue to this day,” she says. She was also a member of the first sorority on campus, Lambda Sigma Nu.

After St. Norbert, Page taught elementary school for a short time before entering graduate school. At University of Wisconsin-Madison, she focused on printmaking and ceramics.

M.F.A. in hand, Page went on to teach part-time at Western Illinois University and Illinois Wesleyan. She continued to teach after moving to Manhattan, work that included part-time stints in the art departments at Queensborough Community College in Bayside, N.Y., and Drew University in Madison, N.J. She also continued making art. In her loft, she painted and completed several drawings as well as wall installations, some of which exhibited in artist-run galleries in SoHo at the time when it was coming into its own as a booming art district.

However, it was her work in restoration that remained her trademark. When, in 2008, she left New York and returned to Wisconsin to help her sister care for their elderly mother, her business followed her. In due course, she converted a Madison liquor store to a studio/living space, where she says she is still “kept quite busy, with restoration work coming to me from all over the country.”


July 9, 2014