Graffiti With a Story!
The Bennington Museum called me to remove graffiti from a bronze sculpture.
I spent 9 days in July and August of 2022 addressing this and other concerns involving ‘The American Spirit – Faith Charity Hope’ by Clyde du Vernet Hunt (1861-1941), c.1928.
The image below left is how it looked a day after being tagged with red spray paint. The image on the right is how it looked when I started several months later following previous efforts by the Williamstown and Atlanta Art Conservation Center.
They were able to remove a good portion of the paint but left a visible residue.
The surface had a few bare bronze spots, but was mostly covered in an original dark brown patina and verdigris.
Verdigris can be the result of oxidation of the copper alloy in bronze after decades of outdoor weathering. It can also be applied to bronze surfaces. I speculate, given the drip marks that are highly unlikely to be caused by weathering, that this verdigris is a chemical application. However, I also find it hard to believe that the artist would have approved of the drips and streaks of verdigris. So, I believe that this was not the artist’s original intent and thus applied sometime after the artist’s death (1941) and before it was gifted to the museum (1947).
Notice the number 88 spray painted across the chest. The Director of the museum, Martin Mahoney, told me that this refers to an incident in the American Indian Wars which spanned more than 300 years of American history. The battles were characterized by brutality – prisoners were usually killed including innocent bystanders – and the Indians rarely won any battles. During Lincoln’s presidency, one such battle ended with over 200 Indian prisoners. Lincoln insisted that each be given a fair trial. The result was that 88 were hung and the rest were freed. The question remains, did Lincoln allow 88 Indians to be hung, or did he save the others from certain death?
No one knows who did the graffiti, though there is both a sizeable local college population as well as an indigenous population.
Bronze disease is corrosion of the copper alloy in the bronze below the patina cause by chloride which is an environmental pollutant. This pollutant is particularly concentrated in the air where roads and walkways are salted. It is also one of the compounds found in acid rain. This corrosion will continue to spread if it is not removed.
Several dozen spots were removed, located beside the left eye, under the rim of the hat, in both ears, and on the back of the neck. The spots varied in size from an inch in diameter to a pinhead.
Using sculpting tools, the blooms of chloride corrosion were picked away without scratching the surrounding patina. Remaining residue was brushed off using rigid plastic brushes on a Dremel. The surface was cleaned with xylene, a solvent which removes dirt and oxidation without harming verdigris or patina. These areas were coated several times with Everbrite. This polymer coating filled and sealed the small pits and cracks at the root of this ‘disease’, preventing further outbreaks. The coating will last 5-10 years, depending on weather conditions. I guarantee it for 5.
The image on the left shows the disease. The right shows blooms and residue removed.
A solvent-based red spray paint penetrated the rough surface making removal challenging. The paint was applied to the hands, face, arm, and the front of the coat.
I removed this in two separate treatments using conservation industry-approved graffiti-removal products. The first treatment removed most of the paint. A remaining ‘shadow’ was successfully removed with a second treatment using a different product.
This second treatment also removed much of the verdigris on and around the treated areas. To restore the verdigris, I first applied a matching green cold patina. This did not achieve the desired effect. Fearing that a stronger cold patina would visibly etch into the surrounding patina, I opted instead to apply pigment, matching the color and pattern of the surrounding verdigris, followed by two coats of Everbrite. The pigment is color-fast and the coating has a UV inhibitor, thus protecting the pigment from fading.
The treatment of pigment and coating were also applied to all the areas where bronze disease was removed.
Lead shims and caulking around the base of the statue deteriorated. I removed the old material only in the front of the sculpture, preserving the gaps in the sides and back to allow air circulation and drainage of any moisture inside the sculpture. Though the two coatings filled all cracks and pits on the sculpture, preventing rain from entering, moisture will continue to occur inside the sculpture due to condensation. The remaining gaps in the base will allow this condensation to drain and evaporate, preventing corrosion.
The front was re-caulked with outdoor-grade 35-year silicone and painted a dark gray to coordinate with the colors of the label and rock foundation.
The aluminum signage was nearly unreadable due to dirt and oxidation. I burnished the surface of the lettering with an 80-grit sanding disc on a grinder, preserving the contrasting rough surface below the lettering.
The surface was cleaned with xylene, and 2 coats of Everbrite satin were applied. The UV inhibitor in the Everbrite will prevent oxidation for 5-10 years.
In keeping with conservation standards, least aggressive products were used. They are reversible and when dry, environmentally safe. The sculpture is now in fine condition. The coating will also make any further non-etched graffiti very easy to remove. And I return annually free-of-charge for 5 years as part of my guarantee, to be sure that the products and techniques perform as expected.
By the way, the Bennington Museum has an outstanding collection including “…the largest public collection of paintings by the great American folk artist Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses who lived in nearby Eagle Bridge, NY, as well as the defining collection of 19th‐century Bennington stoneware. “Creative Collisions” are becoming popular at the museum, so we also have on view works by major 20th‐century modernists including Rockwell Kent, Paul Feeley, and Jules Olitski, as well as works by contemporary and outsider artists such as Gayleen Aiken, Duane Michals, Jessica Park, and Jarvis Rockwell. The permanent collection includes superb furniture and paintings from Vermont, one of the oldest “Stars and Stripes” in existence – the famous Bennington Flag, with its arch of 13 stars encircling the number “76” – the renowned 1863 Jane Stickle Quilt featuring an astounding 5602 pieces, and a 1924 Martin Wasp Touring Car, the only automobile manufactured in Vermont. All are fine examples of art, history, and innovation that represent the creative mind at work, and the spontaneous expression of the human spirit.”
Update October 2023: Another Interpretation
I was sharing this story of the graffiti with a friend who studies domestic terrorism. He noted that there may be another meaning. He explained that among white supremacists the number 88 is an abbreviation for the Nazi salute - it refers to the 8th letter of the alphabet (H) which in turn refers to 'Heil Hitler'. And Lincoln is particularly reviled among Neo-Nazis for freeing the slaves and thus diluting the white race and relegating whites to a minority.