She is 13 feet tall, weighs 10,000 pounds and desperately needs a facial.
She’s Lorado Taft’s magnificent bronze “Alma Mater” – normally found welcoming students to the University of Illinois main campus in Champaign-Urbana at the corner of Green and Wright streets. She (and her companions, Learning and Labor) are enjoying a stay at a high-tech spa for sculpture: Forest Park’s Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio Inc. on the 900 block of Desplaines Avenue.
Complete with laser-surface cleaning, the sculpture’s beautification is expected to take until just before graduation next May, in time for the cap-and-gowned to pose with her.
Artist and art conservator Andrzej Dajnowski, Ph.D., who owns and runs the studio, was chosen to mastermind the makeover. He has worked on Taft pieces before, notably “Fountain of Time” on Chicago’s Midway, and “Young Lincoln” across from Urbana High School.
Taft himself earned a master’s degree at Illinois, moved on to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and later taught at the Art Institute of Chicago, but always maintained a close relationship with the university.
“This is an incredibly big project; huge, actually,” said Dajnowski. “And it presents some unusual problems.” Pigeon droppings are the least of it; problems include multiple types of corrosion, soot accumulation, previous less-than-perfect restoration efforts, and any interior problems yet to be revealed by X-ray. Tests will determine the exact composition of the bronze to help decide what methods are required in the cleaning and repair. All the work will be done inside the secure Forest Park studio, under skylights and a 20-foot-tall ceiling.
According to Dajnowski, “Alma Mater” was designed by Taft and actually cast in Chicago – the base reads “American Art Bronze Foundry” – before being installed in Champaign in 1929 as a gift to the university from the sculptor and the classes of 1923 through 1929. The piece is hollow and ³/8 of an inch thick, normally resting on a base of granite blocks on the downstate campus.
The foremost figure, Alma Mater herself, is a welcoming woman in classical robes and is actually separately made from the bulk of the piece, which consists of a throne, flanked by two figures that represent the university motto: “Learning and Labor.” “Learning” is a female figure in Grecian draperies, clasping hands across the throne with “Labor,” a shirtless muscular male figure, clad in leather apron and boots, with a sheaf of blueprints behind his right leg.
Previous restoration work – most recently in 1981 – is also being assessed. Dajnowski spoke approvingly of an earlier decision to replace corroded interior bolts with high-quality stainless steel, bolts that remain undamaged to this day. But often, he said, artists are called upon to perform this type of work when it is actually beyond their training, and – despite the best intentions – can result in what he called “disastrous and dangerous decisions,” which actually cause additional deterioration.
Dajnowski, born in Poland, knew from the age of 15 that art restoration was his life’s work. With a Ph.D. in conservation and restoration of works of arts – his dissertation was on the effects of lasers on copper alloy surfaces – Dajnowski is himself a sculptor, which he says helps him better understand how sculptures he restores were made, and with what intent. His son, Bartosz, 29, is studying art conservation at the University of Delaware and is part of the business already.
“When I do work on a sculpture, I cannot think as myself,” Dajnowski said. “I have to start thinking like the artist. Whatever I do, it must be in his style.” This reverence is evident in Dajnowski’s staff as they work on numerous projects in the studio. He employs nine conservators as well as several part-time people, “and many more would like to work here,” he added.
Dajnowski seemed startled by the widespread affection for Alma Mater. “I didn’t know so many people would be interested,” he said. The sculpture traveled to Forest Park on Aug. 7 and despite concern that dismantling it would take all day, a team of eight, using a crane, was able to do the job in just four hours. The piece was loaded on the truck by noon that day for the journey north.
On “Alma Mater,” Dajnowski will be recommending a protective coating before she is returned. All too frequently, he said, cities and institutions will spend lots of money to buy art, only to allow it to deteriorate from the moment it is installed, even though “you spend many times less on a car, and you would at least have it washed once a year!”
Unlike a vintage vehicle, this statue cannot be garage kept, so regular maintenance measures will certainly be needed. Assuming all goes well, a refreshed “Alma Mater” will be back home in spring 2013, once more welcoming all to her corner next to Altgeld Hall.
The inscription on her base reads: “Alma Mater/To thy happy children of the future those of the past send greetings/her children arise up and call her blessed.”