Collection of 1930s Outdoor Garden Sculptures from the Federal Arts Project
In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was developed as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, which was designed to pull the United States out of the Great Depression by using federal funds to provide work for millions of unemployed Americans. The Federal Arts Project was a small branch of the WPA that was focused on employing artists with federal commissions for public art. During the four years of its existence, several thousand murals, posters, drawings, and sculptures were completed.
Tompkins County is most familiar with the
Lion sculpture by Eugenie Gershoy, before treatment
lasting work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was the branch of the WPA that built outdoor trails and shared public spaces. But a set of eight animal sculptures commissioned by the Federal Arts Project is still publicly displayed on the grounds of the Cayuga Medical Center in Northwest Ithaca. Because many bear artist's names, we know they were created as a group by several New York State artists. The group was originally commissioned to brighten the children's playground near the tubercular ward at the original hospital building on Biggs Road.
When the hospital moved to its current location on Dates Drive, the sculptures were moved to the new outdoor Children's Garden near the maternity ward and pediatric care unit. The sculptures have been outdoors for eighty years.
In 2017, thanks to the advocacy of Ithaca artist Steve Carver, the Cayuga Medical Center committed to have the sculptures cleaned and restored. Because of the objects' size and weight, the cleanings were executed on site on the hospital grounds.
The plaque that accompanies the sculpture collection in the Children's Garden at the Cayuga Medical Center on Dates Drive in Ithaca, NY
During their decades outdoors, the stone surfaces had become embedded with organic material. Lichens, moss, algae, and mold had formed light colonization on some of the sculptures, while other sculptures (especially the lion, walrus, and elephant) had larger sections of detail obscured by the growths. The organic material was dark and spotted, and disfigured the solid color of the sculptures' smooth curves. An old repair to one of the cast's faces, and another cast's missing foot, further marred the collection.
To clean their surfaces, the sculptures were saturated with a quaternary ammonia and surfactant solution that included a buffer to control pH. After every application, the solution was left to soak for half an hour, then agitated and brushed off with a variety of nylon brushes, and finally flooded with water to rinse the solution. Quaternary ammonia chlorides effectively shrink organic cells, and loosen them from stone, but because of the severity of the growths and staining, the poulticing was repeated several times on each of these sculptures.
Monkey sculpture by Adolf Wolff, before and after treatment
Elephant sculpture by Eugenie Gershoy, before and after treatment
Hippo sculpture, before and after treatment
An important ethic in any conservation treatment is the avoidance of damage to original material. So a critical facet of cleaning outdoor artwork is knowing when to stop, by indentifying the point at which removing more foreign material would risk damaging the artwork itself. The original material of these casts is a soft, cured lime-based stone slurry, and harsh abrasives, acids, power washers, and other aggressive cleaning methods can quickly do irreparable damage to this type of material. Recognizing the stopping point when cleaning artwork, both to preserve the
Dog sculpture by Hugo Robus, before and after treatment
original material and to consider the natural point of diminishing returns, requires experience and restraint. This cleaning project was highly successful, with the cosmetic quality and stability of the sculptures significantly improved, and approximately 85% of the contaminants and staining removed from each cast.
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Bear sculpture, before and after cleaning and left foot restoration
Photo by Ithaca Joiurnal
Bear sculpture, detail of foot restoration
Photo by Ithaca Journal
Kasia Maroney and Steve Carver
Photo by Ithaca Journal
Lion sculpture by Eugenie Gershoy, before and after treatment