WPA sculptures receive a facelift

By Jay Wrolstad

Restoration specialist Kasia Maroney cleans one of the eight sculptures on display at a Cayuga Medical Center garden.
Restoration specialist Kasia Maroney cleans one of the eight sculptures on display at a Cayuga Medical Center garden.
A rare collection of Depression-era sculptures at Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) has been refurbished at its outdoor setting, revealing that years of obscurity and neglect have done little to diminish their simplistic beauty and historical significance.
Eight small, whimsical animal sculptures, ranging from a bear lying on its back and an elephant standing on a ball to a hippopotamus, a walrus, and a lion with a ball between its front paws, reside in a small garden on a knoll above the parking lot at the hospital’s main entrance. Each is about two to three feet tall.
They were created by six different artists in 1937 and 1938, and are the only remaining artworks in Tompkins County that were commissioned by the Federal Art Project as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The cast stone creatures were originally installed, in 1938, in a children’s playground at the TB Hospital at what was then called Biggs Memorial Hospital. They had been moved to this location from the original site sometime over the past 80 years.
After nearly 80 years of outdoor exposure, the sculptures were faithfully restored earlier this month through the efforts of local graphic artist/illustrator Steve Carver and art conservator Kasia Maroney of Trumansburg-based Boston Restoration.
Carver explains that he learned of their sculptures after moving to Ithaca in 1983 and examining an art catalog he found at the Bookery, published in 1977, for a show titled New Deal for Art that included a listing of all Federal Art Project pieces still in existence in New York State. Three of the eight creations at CMC were included in the catalog.
“I went to the hospital and found them—they were in bad condition, covered with mildew, lichen and dirt,” Carver says. “Over the years I approached hospital officials about restoring these sculptures, giving them the attention that they deserved based on their historical value.”
Eventually, Carver was introduced to John Rudd, current CEO at CMC, and discussed with him his interest in the artwork. Last fall Carver met with Rudd and John Turner, Vice President, Public Relations, at CMC, and the three men toured the site where the works are located.
It was decided then that the restoration effort was a worthwhile undertaking by the hospital, Carver says, and the work was scheduled for this spring.
“I was drawn to the sculptures because, as far as anyone knows, they are the only Federal Art Project pieces to be found in Tompkins County,” says Carver. “There were other WPA projects in this area, but they were mostly structural, such as gorge trails, schools and public buildings.” In fact, among the local WPA projects that are still visible are the retaining walls along Cascadilla Creek gorge in Ithaca and the Southside Community Center, originally known as Southside House.
The WPA was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, designed to put the masses of unemployed people to work The government-funded Federal Art Project of the WPA hired hundreds of artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and more than 18,000 sculptures.
“The artists who created the sculptures at CMC were not local, and are not well known. To my knowledge, they were most likely from the New York City area,” Carver says. For the record, those artists were Humbert Albrizio, Muriel Brennecke, Eugenie Gershoy, Hugo Robus, Bernard Walsh and Adolph Wolff.
“The fact that the artists are not well known adds some mystery to the sculptures,” Maroney says. “At the time they were made there may have been some attempt at whimsy; there is a childlike nature to them, a simplicity to their shapes. What’s interesting is that they are all situated on the ground, without pedestals, at eye-level for small children. They were clearly designed for a young audience—and they are still on the ground, so that kids can still enjoy them.”
Maroney explains that all of the pieces were created using a lime-based slurry that was poured into a mold. The substance included powdered lime, powdered clay, sand and pebbles. “The fact that they are all made of the same substance, and are all about the same size, suggests that there was some communication among the individual artists who received commissions for this project,” she says.
Because the works have been outside for nearly 80 years, in the Northeast climate, they have suffered a lot of climate abuse. The surfaces have been eroded by rain, and were covered by colonies of lichen, algae and mold.
“The easy thing to do is to use an abrasive chemical and stiff brushes to clean them, but that is the wrong way to go about it,” says Maroney. “In restoration the key is to do no harm to the material, so we used an ammonium-chloride solution designed to remove biological contaminants from outdoor artwork.”
The solution was applied to each of the sculptures and left on them to soak in, separating the organic material from the surface of the artwork and making it easier to remove. The cleansing agent was applied four or five times on each piece, Maroney says. The result of her work is that the sculptures now have a more vibrant, pinkish hue, after removal of the grime and growths on their surfaces.
“I enjoyed this job because this is a special collection—unique to Tompkins County—and not very well known, although it is in a very public space, where anyone can see it,” she says. “That was the point of the Federal Arts Project, to create public art. And these sculptures are still here for our enjoyment. Also, this restoration project is timely in that the Johnson Museum at Cornell and the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester have both offered exhibitions featuring WPA art in the past year, increasing awareness.”
“They look dramatically better now,” Carver says of the sculptures. “They are a bit softer than when they were created, as a result of long-term exposure to the elements, but they remain wonderful works of art. I got involved with this because very few people know that these pieces exist; they should be appreciated and enjoyed by the public. These are charming works of art by artists who deserve more recognition.”
The restoration effort was funded by CMC through a gift from the family of Frederick Mitchell, a former long-time surgeon at the hospital, Turner says. “The garden is named after Dorothy Mitchell, his wife, and their kids played on the sculptures when they were small. Their gift, and Steve Carver’s efforts, have ensured that these wonderful works will continue to delight visitors for many decades to come,” he says.