Art and architecture critic

Drew Watt, the National Gallery of Art’s mountmaker, specializes in bespoke metalwork or plexiglass fixtures that hold small or irregular pieces of exhibited art in place. (Jonathan Thorpe for The Washington Post)

When the National Gallery of Art hangs a painting on the wall, the process is relatively straightforward. When curators display a sculpture, that, too, is familiar territory: Put it on pedestal or a plinth stable and strong enough that the piece won’t be damaged. But what of all the irregular objects in the collection, the ceramic pieces, decorative plates or small glass sculptures? And what do you do if you want to display a cup at an angle, so you can see both the sides and the insides? Chances are that Andrew Watt, the gallery’s mountmaker, has solved the problem.

“I make armatures that support, protect, cradle and display the art in ways that you might not be able to see otherwise,” he says when asked how he explains his job at a dinner party. Drew Watt, as he’s known, joined the gallery as a carpenter but became interested in the precise metalwork of mountmaking.

“Primarily I work in brass and silver-soldered brass,” he says. “The process is heating and annealing the brass, bending it, soldering pieces together to get the general form and then slowly bending until the pieces fit.” He also occasionally works with plexiglass and epoxy resins. The goal is to make the display as unobtrusive as possible, and once the mount is the right shape, it is usually painted with a faux finish.

The challenges of his daily work include irregular or oblong objects, the occasional need to display something that has soft or flexible form, and objects that make it difficult to hide the mount. He remembers a blown-glass fish from Afghanistan as particularly tricky. Glass is hard, he says, because you can see through it.

“If you noticed it, then I haven’t done the job correctly,” he says.

Mark Leithauser, the National Gallery’s chief of design, says that the kind of specialized mountmaking Watt is skilled at dates to the mid-1970s, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was beginning to mount blockbuster exhibitions such as the famed King Tut show of 1976. The National Gallery collaborated with the Met on a 1978 exhibition that helped transplant the skill to Washington. “Both the Met and the Gallery are now leaders in the field,” Leithauser says.

Watt, 40, studied history but interrupted his college years when his father died. He moved west and regrouped, and then took a different turn. “I decided I wasn’t ready to go back into school, and I wanted to do something with my hands,” he says. An internship at the National Gallery in carpentry led to a full-time position, and now he is the gallery’s principal mountmaker.