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City catalogs public art

Chris Dorst
Jim Gwinner of McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory checks the height of the World War II statue at the Veterans Memorial Tuesday as part of his inventory of public art in the city of Charleston.
Chris Dorst Jim Gwinner takes notes on the condition of the Veterans Memorial at the state Capitol Complex Tuesday. His work is part of a project to inventory public art, develop guidelines for maintaining it and efforts to encourage and place new public art across Charleston.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Don't be alarmed if you see a scruffy-looking guy prowling around the city's outdoor sculptures and murals.

Jim Gwinner is just doing his job, compiling an inventory of about 50 pieces of public art.

An employee of McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio, Gwinner expects to spend the rest of this week compiling information for the database he plans to give the city this summer.

He apologized for his casual dress -- shorts and T-shirt -- on a day when temperatures approached 90 degrees.

"It's really uncomfortable work. You find yourself going to places other people wouldn't dream of."

Moments later he climbed into one of the drained fountains in the Veterans Memorial so he could measure the height of the Korean War statue. That's just the start of what he does at each site.

"What we're doing is a sweep: number one, list the works, where's they're installed, how they're installed -- on a plinth [a stone base], on the ground, on a wall," he said.

"If it's a plinth, identify the material. This one [the female veteran] is sandstone, I think. The coal miner is on granite. The reason is if something happens to it, if a car hits it, you know what was there.

"Then the condition, not just the plinth. If there's a coating on the work, how thick is it, and the condition of the coating." He determines Joe Mullins coated the female veteran with a sulfurated potash, creating the bronze patina.

"We'll photograph the work from all angles, note any nomenclature. I typically take measurements."

The plinth under the female vet is inset with four bronze plaques, he notes. "This has some sort of clear coat." With a hand-held device, he measures the thickness -- 1.1 mm.

"It's very critical with coated works to know the thickness for wear, durability and to see if it's applied correctly.

"It's like a snapshot in time of what a particular piece looks like.

"I also like to take a general note of where it's installed, if lighting is present."

He'll also interview the original artists, if possible, to learn when the pieces were installed and how they should be maintained.

In his final database, "I give them everything I've noted -- conditions -- and recommendations for maintenance. If something's really bad, I'll say you need to do something immediately, and who should do it. In some cases building maintenance can do it. In other cases we recommend a conservator."

Gwinner is working from a list of public art compiled last year by Naomi Bays, an area arts consultant. "It's not just government memorials. There's some private institutions that have public art. They'll be included too.

"It's a very solid list, I believe 47 works. We may add new pieces as others are remembered."

The inventory is just a part of the work McKay Lodge and Renee Piechocki, a Pittsburgh public arts specialist, are doing for the city this year under a $120,000 contract funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Piechocki will help write city guidelines for developing and maintaining public art, with recommendations of new sites, and will help decide whether the city needs a group, like an arts council, to oversee its public art.

Her first priority, though, is to create a walking tour of public art sites, to guide visitors around the city. She hopes to unveil the tour during FestivALL.

"My job is to figure out how new works can be placed," Piechocki told City Council members Monday evening. "You've seen the new bike racks and pier murals. We may want to tweak the system a little."

She showed slides of public art in Pittsburgh and elsewhere to show how artists and architects can work together in unexpected ways to beautify cities.

"How can artists be involved in your riverfront development? That's a way to make a place more interesting without spending a lot of money," she said.

Gwinner said he can't discuss the condition of individual works of art without permission from their owners. "I haven't seen anything horrible but, as in all cities, there are things that need attention quickly and things that don't need attention.

"Most cities don't have proper inventory systems and maintenance plans in place," Gwinner said. "City Council is being very progressive by doing this.

"It will help, not just the art work, but the overall look of the city. It's a way of protecting the assets."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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