Getting closer to an answer on Alma Mater's original shade

Getting closer to an answer on Alma Mater's original shade

It's not exactly the Zapruder film, but a 70-year-old home movie shot by a university graduate has shed some light on a key question regarding the Alma Mater.

Namely, her original color.

Conservators restoring the 1929 sculpture by Lorado Taft have been waiting to see exactly what color the statue will be once the cleaning process is complete.

They've already announced that Alma won't be the blue-green familiar to generations of UI graduates. That patina was mostly the result of age and corrosion that was eating away at the sculpture.

The university will return Alma to her original bronze, but there's some debate about whether that was brown, gray or some mixture.

There are no color photos from the statue's earliest days, only black and white.

But an 8-mm color film shot in the 1940s by Robert Kallal, a UI engineering graduate, recently surfaced through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' "Storyography" project. It shows Kallal with other friends and relatives at a UI commencement, along with shots of familiar campus landmarks — including Alma, then about 16 years old.

The statue was still in its original location behind Foellinger Auditorium; it was moved to its current spot at Wright and Green streets in 1962.

Members of the UI's preservation team said the film doesn't show anything definitive about the sculpture's original color, other than that it was dark.

"Color is a personal thing. To me it looked bronze in color," said Christa Deacy-Quinn, collections manager at the UI Spurlock Museum and a member of the UI preservation team.

But UI University Archivist William Maher said the Kodachrome film — which doesn't degenerate the way later color film did — appears to show Alma as a "gunmetal" color that is a fairly close match to the dark-gray granite base. The image also shows some lighter areas along the horizontal surfaces of the sculpture, as well as the arm of her robe, that could indicate the statue had gradations of color from the start.

Melvyn Skvarla, campus historic preservation officer, said some of the lighter areas are likely sunlight reflecting off of her shoulders. It does appear that a patina is forming already, he said, but that's natural for bronze.

Some sculptors — including Carl Milles, whose "Sunsinger" sits in Allerton Park — applied chemicals to give their bronze sculptures an aged patina right away, Skvarla said. But he and other UI officials say there's no evidence Taft did that.

Archivists have used a photo restoration program to try to determine a color range from the black and white photos of the sculpture, Maher said, but they weren't conclusive.

"The best thing I was able to come up with is it was dark, it was a dull rather than shiny finish, and there was already gradation in the statue itself, on the surfaces," he said.

Colorized postcards from the 1930s also portray the statue in the gray family, he said.

"My concern is that all of the evidence needs to be looked at before coming to a decision as to what it should be," Maher said.

At his last campus update, lead conservator Andrzej Dajnowski said he is allowing the sculpture to reveal its color through the laser-cleaning process. The metal then will be sealed with a wax coating, which will be reapplied periodically to prevent further damage.

Though the cleaned sections of the sculpture appear gray in some photos, the color is actually a bronze-brown, officials said.

Deacy-Quinn said the exact shade won't be known until the entire sculpture is cleaned and coated. She said it won't be uniform; some areas have had more wear and tear, such as the arms of the chair, she said, and will likely be lighter in tone.

The UI's preservation teams will visit Dajnowski's Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio in Forest Park again in January for an update.

"Unfortunately the piece has had so much corrosion on it, by the time we started to conserve it, it was very hard to tell," said Deacy-Quinn. "We can't go back in time and actually look at it as it was."

Deacy-Quinn thinks the switch from the blue-green patina will be the bigger shock for Alma-lovers than the exact shade of brown or gray the statue ultimately takes on.

"To me those are smaller gradations," she said.

The statue was shipped to the studio to repair decades of water damage and corrosion. After chemical analysis and X-rays were conducted, conservators realized the damage was far more extensive than they thought. The original plan was to bring it back to campus for last spring's commencement, but the UI announced in March that the statue needed more work. The estimated cost also tripled, from just under $100,000 to $360,000, which is being covered with private funds through the UI chancellor's office.

Sections (2):News, Local

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Wurstmann wrote on December 11, 2013 at 9:12 am

"It's not exactly the Zapruder film, but ..."

Gosh, that's a cute quip.  Referencing a president getting murdered to talk about a statue. 

Not cool. 

Lyon wrote on December 11, 2013 at 9:12 am

I worked at the U of I Campus Planning Office, part-time, when the Alma Mater  was moved.  I have a color slide, taken after the move, in the fall of 1962, that shows the sculpture before the taller base was constructed. The color of the statue is, as noted it the article,  dark except for a few areas such as the arms of the chair and the shoulders of the figures.  It would be nice to see Alma Mater returned to that color.

I'm sure the University has color photos of the sculpture before and after that move.


jdmac44 wrote on December 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Bronze has been used to cast sculptures since before the time of Christ.  If you make a sculpture out of bronze and put it out in the elements, you know full well that it's going to develop what is called a petina; it's expected, in fact petina is prized among art enthuiasts.  To throw around talk about what the artist originally intended is silly, if Mr. Taft didn't want Alma to turn green, he would have used another material, perhaps stone or had the finished work placed indoors.  I noticed that the copper work around the exterior of Lincoln Hall is still a green petina, even after the massively expensive renovation, does that mean that these parts are set to rot away as was predicted with Alma?  I think we're told what is necessary for the Adminstration to do what they intend to do anyway.