Restorer discusses Alma Mater tasks

Restorer discusses Alma Mater tasks

URBANA — How do you move a 13-foot-tall bronze sculpture prized by generations of University of Illinois students?

Very carefully — with shims, a truck and "a very big crane," according to the man in charge, curator Andrzej Dajnowski.

Dajnowski will oversee the dismantling of the Alma Mater sculpture at Wright and Green streets and its move to his Chicago-area studio next week.

Originally conceived as a two-day operation, starting Monday, the project is now scheduled only for Tuesday.

Dajnowski, director of The Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio of Forest Park, said he didn't want to leave the Lorado Taft sculpture unattended overnight, and adding security would have increased the cost.

"We can do everything in one day," Dajnowski said in a phone interview Thursday.

Alma Mater, which has four major components, will be dismantled starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Dajnowski specializes in restoring public sculptures, including Taft's "Fountain of Time" in Chicago's Hyde Park and several works in Champaign-Urbana: "Lincoln the Lawyer" in Carle Park, "Prayer for Rain" in West Side Park and the "Lincoln-Douglas Debate," a plaster relief in the UI College of Law. But each one is different, he said.

"There is nothing you can predict on a project like this," Dajnowski said.

The challenge with Alma Mater is figuring out how to take it apart, he said. The sculpture was cast in at least 30 sections and then bolted together.

The process will involve raising the statue with shims, lifting it with a giant crane, and taking it apart as necessary, he said.

"Lifting it is going to be a very tricky part," he said. "We don't know how it's assembled."

If all goes well, it should arrive in his 13,000-square-foot studio by Tuesday night.

Dajnowski said the bronze is in good condition, and "it was very well cast." The exterior has suffered from corrosion, and more problems may crop up inside, but he won't know until he can inspect the statue after it's taken apart.

He will take analyze samples from the surface, then use chemicals or lasers to clean the sculpture "depending on which way the university decides to go," he said. A new patina will be applied, followed by a coating of microcrystalizing wax and polyethylene.

Campus preservation officials are studying Taft's original plans before deciding whether Alma will retain her weathered green look or return to a deep bronze color.

Dajnowski said the length of the project will depend on what he finds. If there's little interior damage and the corrosion is easily removed, it can go quickly, he said. But one project in Oak Park required 10 cleanings with a laser, he said.

"I'll know more after I take corrosion samples and we analyze them," he said.

The UI landmark is scheduled to return to campus in time for the May 2013 commencement.

Originally from Poland, Dajnowski has a master's degree in sculpture and a doctorate in conservation. He has been restoring sculptures, artifacts and other objects from across the country for 35 years.

Dajnowski's company was the first privately owned conservation studio in the United States to adopt laser technology for large-scale projects. Lasers can produce excellent results without water, harsh chemical cleansers or abrasive methods, according to Dajnowski. He said he recently restored some historical pictographs that could not be cleaned with chemicals.

"It is very precise," said Dajnowski. "You can calibrate the laser to remove whatever you want, layer by layer."

The Alma Mater project is budgeted to cost up to $100,000, depending on the damage found, but that's an estimate, said Jennifer Hain Teper, a conservation librarian and member of the campus Preservation Working Group. The work is funded by the UI chancellor's office.

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Andrew R. Timms wrote on August 03, 2012 at 9:08 am
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The way a particular sentence is written, it seems to suggest "Prayer for Rain" is a Lorado Taft sculpture. It is an Edward Kemeys creation. http://www.champaignparkdistrict.com/facilities/other/prayerforrain.htm

Mike Howie wrote on August 03, 2012 at 10:08 am
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Thanks for the catch. Fixed.

rsp wrote on August 03, 2012 at 12:08 pm

In July of 1900 the Illinois Fish Commision donated 75-100 goldfish that were kept in the basin of the fountain. 

So what happened to the fish? Wouldn't a few koi set it off just right?