Effort to reproduce sculptures takes shape

If you happen to see the State Capitol's statue of Gov. Charles B. Aycock looking a little mummy-like in the next few days, don't panic.

It's no post-Halloween prank. It's actually part of a generous gift by a conservancy group from South Dakota that specializes in preserving and re-creating statues by Gutzon Borglum, an American sculptor best known for his four gigantic presidential busts at Mount Rushmore.

Borglum created the bronze Aycock monument and its Capitol Square neighbor, a statue of Henry Lawson Wyatt, an Edgecombe County Confederate soldier who was the first to die in battle in the Civil War. Wyatt's monument was dedicated in 1912; Aycock's was unveiled on the square in 1924.

Borglum was a popular artist in his day, though occasionally criticized for racist views and his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. He also is known for his N.C. sculpture placed in 1929 on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Today, it's still a favorite for many visitors to the battlefield.

Both Capitol Square sculptures are getting makeovers this week, courtesy of the Borglum Historical Center in South Dakota. The group strives to reproduce as many Borglum images as possible. Foundry master Ron Cavalier and his team of conservators arrived Thursday to begin a nearly two-week process of making molds of the two statues, then cleaning and preserving them.

“We're very grateful to be allowed to come here and reproduce these sculptures,” he said Saturday. “They'll be on display in South Dakota, and we hope that people who see them will be redirected here.”

When they're done, they'll end up with full-sized plaster molds, which will go in pieces to a workshop in East Haven, Conn. There, the group will spend the next year reproducing the bronze statues that will join other Borglum work in the Historical Center, which is open to the public near Mount Rushmore.

The conservation team started the process by painting both statues with layers of black synthetic rubber that looked like tar. It was a painstaking job that involved workers squeezing behind the bronze Aycock and up against the granite monument to make sure his whole body was covered.

By Saturday afternoon, after the fourth coat of rubber had dried, the team got to work putting plaster on Aycock and Wyatt.

The plaster work will continue today. It should be dry and ready to come off by Monday or Tuesday. Then the cleaning and preserving will go through the middle to end of the week.

The group has been tireless in its pursuit of copying the work of Borglum, who died in 1941. At one point, he maintained a studio in Raleigh, and he is also known as the first sculptor to attempt to carve a Confederate Memorial on Stone Mountain near Atlanta. Once the group finds a Borglum piece exists, it gets permission to do a mold. The members clean and preserve the monument for free as a thank-you to the owners. Cavalier said they usually do one project every one to two years.

“We do it for the love of art,” said Cavalier, who took a break from the statues to lead a small class on the molding process Saturday afternoon.

State Capitol employees have spent two years paving the way for the conservationists' work..

“The conservation of our statues is important so that we can preserve them for future generations,” said Tiffianna Honsinger, the curator of collections and research at the Capitol. “We'll be able to share these works with others in South Dakota.”

Honsinger typically takes on the role of preserving Capitol statues – at least the ones low enough to the ground for her to reach. Last year, she cleaned and waxed the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial as part of a 20-year celebration of the monument's creation. While doing so, she discovered the sculptor was so detail-oriented that the soldiers wore watches and had coins in their pockets.

“There's no better way to learn about a statue than to clean it,” she said.

The cleaning process will unfold this week in full public view. At 1 p.m. Saturday at the Capitol, Audrey and Howard Shaff, representatives from the Borglum Historical Center, will give a historical overview on Borglum's time in North Carolina and how it shaped his later work at Mount Rushmore.