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Alma Mater sculpture restoration more extensive than originally thought

laser cleaning of Labor on Alma Mater
Photo by Mike Helenthal

Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio staff member Robert Zarycki uses the laser to clean the arm of "Labor" -- the sculpture on the left behind Alma Mater. ("Learning" is shown at right.) Further study of the statue revealed that interior damage was worse than first thought, which will lead to a higher repair cost and keep the statute from returning to its pedestal at Green and Wright streets in time for graduation.

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3/4/2013 | Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs | 217-333-5010

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Because deterioration to the Alma Mater sculpture is more extensive than an initial inspection of the exterior indicated, the restoration of the 5-ton bronze statue is going to cost more and take longer.

laser cleaning of seal on Alma Mater
Laser cleaning of the Alma Mater is under way in the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio at Forest Park, Ill., by staff member Robert Zarycki, who works around the seal located on the back side of the throne.

The 83-year-old campus landmark, which had been at the southeast corner of Green and Wright streets in Urbana, was removed Aug. 7, 2012, and taken to the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park, Ill., to repair years of water damage and corrosion that affected the appearance and structural integrity of the sculpture.

Once experts were able to closely inspect the interior of the 13-foot tall artwork by U. of I. alumnus and artist Lorado Taft, they determined the 30 sections that make up the sculpture had oxidized and corroded. The interior of each piece will be cleaned, repaired, and treated in the same way as the exterior. Lasers are being used to remove the oxidation, returning it to its original bronze color, and then the metal will be sealed with a wax compound, which will be reapplied periodically.

The original cost of the project was $99,962. The new work is expected to bring the total cost to no more than $360,000. The project is being paid for with gifts from alumni and friends to the Chancellor’s Fund.

The sculpture originally was scheduled to be returned to campus by May 4, 2013, in time for Commencement and photo opportunities for graduates, friends and families. The sculpture now is slated to be back in place on campus during the 2014 academic year.

laser cleaning of seal on Alma Mater
A  close-up view of Robert Zarycki using a laser tool to remove years of oxidation damage on the statue. | Photo by Mike Helenthal

Because the sculpture is traditionally the centerpiece of graduation ceremonies each year, the university has come up with several activities that will offer graduating seniors the opportunity to still have the “Alma experience” despite the currently vacant pedestal.

Robin Kaler, the associate chancellor for public affairs, said the university’s School of Art and Design is working to create several replicas of the sculpture, which will be placed around campus for unique photo opportunities.

“Each replica will have a little different personality,” she said. “We’ll post a map of the locations on the Commencement website so students can easily find them and get pictures with one or all of them.”

She said there also are plans to place orange and blue bunting in front of Foellinger Auditorium and to add landscaping at the Hallene Gateway to provide graduation photo opportunities in the absence of the Alma Mater statue.

Editor's note: An opportunity for members of the news media to interview a representative from the studio on campus may be scheduled in conjunction with a future lecture on the restoration. An advisory will be issued when the date and time have been arranged.

The studio will not respond to media inquiries or site visit requests.

To view photos, videos and more about the sculpture and the restoration,visit uofi.box.com/almamater; password crcmedia.

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