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“I simply don’t understand what’s going on with this picture,” says Philippe Peltier, curator at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.

He is speaking about Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a 20-by-37-centimeter drawing made by Paul Gauguin in 1897 or 1898, which bears an uncertain relationship to the painting of the same name. Obscure figures outlined in red stand in a murky Tahitian landscape of greens and browns. But it isn’t the piece’s content that puzzles Peltier; it’s the medium.

Roy Perkinson ‘62 nods in agreement, as the pair talk in Perkinson’s laboratory in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Perkinson, head of paper conservation at the MFA, is familiar with the work Gauguin produced while living in Tahiti. The artist’s most famous paintings – like the drawing’s namesake – are colorful and exotic, done with oil on canvas. But the drawing’s colors are dark and muted, rendered on paper in an unknown medium.

The Musee du Quai Branly lent the piece to the Museum of Fine Arts in early February for display in the Gauguin Tahiti exhibit, which will run from February to June 2004. With only a few weeks until the opening day, Peltier hopes Perkinson will be able to identify the mysterious medium Gauguin used in the drawing.

This is the kind of challenge Perkinson savors. For 35 years, his job at the MFA has involved conserving, maintaining, and managing the museum’s 250,000-odd works on paper, including drawings, prints, photographs, and watercolors. Knowing how a piece was created goes a long way toward caring for it, but Perkinson has other reasons for wanting to tackle the mystery. He wants to get inside Gauguin’s head. As a paper conservator examines a piece, Perkinson explains, “you are seeing something that is like watching the artist’s thinking process.” The experience delights Perkinson, himself a trained artist.

Perkinson didn’t come to MIT with art in mind. He thought he’d be a physicist. But midway through his junior year, he was having problems. “I got to a stage where I just felt like I wasn’t sure what I was doing, who I was, and was also, not surprisingly, feeling rather worn out,” he says. He talked with his advisor, who, much to his surprise, suggested that Perkinson take some time off.

So he returned home to Dallas, TX, and enrolled in a small arts school. “This was absolute revelation,” he says. “I had always had part of me that needed to make art. And during my initial years at MIT, that had largely been put on the shelf.” A year and a half later, his parents encouraged him to return to MIT, where he finished his bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy supplemented with courses in art history, religion, and languages.

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