Updated: Aug 10, 2018
Statue of St. Francis gets a facelift from a professional restoration artist.
My pastor, Father O'Shea approached me to create a statue for my home parish of St. Winifred in Mt. Lebanon, PA. I was an ambitious 22-year-old senior in college who had just returned from a semester in Florence, Italy studying fine-art. With only one formal class in sculpture and a few small terracotta pieces under my belt, I enthusiastically but naively agreed to the ambitious task. Father O'Shea wanted a statue of St. Francis to go in an outdoor garden that a boy scout wanted to create as his Eagle Scout project. One piece that immediately came to my mind was a powerful terracotta sculpture that I saw in Bologna, Italy called “Compianto sul Cristo morto” by Niccolò dell'Arca created in the late 1400s.
Development and Logistical Challenges
I wanted to create a unique composition of St. Francis, not the typical standing saint with a bird in his hand. Father O'Shea had given me a copy of the saint's life story and I decided to depict a touching story about how Francis saved the villagers of Gubbio from a stray wolf who had been terrorizing the town. I chose to portray a kneeling St. Francis intimately addressing the feral animal. The statue was created to be larger-than-life sized scale, (the kneeling saint is approximately eye-level with the viewer). I forget now how many boxes of red terracotta I carried into my parent's basement which became my studio over the next few months. I built it in the technique I was taught, approximately 2.5" coils that were scored and joined with slip. My father constructed a base with handles for me to build on. The dimensions were designed to fit safely out of the basement door and into the Belgium block grotto the boy scout had constructed on the church site. The sculpture also had to be designed to deconstruct into four pieces to fit into the largest kiln in Pittsburgh at Bidwell Center to be fired.
After the statue was completed and "leather-hard" (a term used to describe clay that has dried to 15% moisture content), it had to be moved to the kiln. Leather-hard is a very fragile state so my father designed a series of support straps, braces, and padding for transport. Even with all the precautions, St. Francis's arm broke at the elbow during the trip. Knowing it had to be assembled later at the site it was inconsequential, but I still had to make sure the pieces were fired at the same time so they shrank at the same percentage.
St. Francis was fit in the large traditional indoor kiln, but it wouldn't accommodate the wolf. The kiln was not available for a consecutive fire. It had already been booked months in advance. So, the technician at Bidwell suggested an outdoor residual salt kiln for the wolf, so they would be done at the same time.
The statue was fired, transported, and assembled on site. I painted it a color of natural terracotta to hide the seams.
The sculpture that had inspired me in Bologna was created the late 1400s. The famous Chinese terracotta soldiers dated back to approximately the late third century BCE. I had hoped St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio would also stand the test of time as an outdoor installation. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. I began to notice small surface cracks within 5 years. Moisture seeped into those cracks and froze and thawed. Over the years, the surface cracks progressed into structural cracks. I had hoped that treating them with a slurry of hydraulic cement and a coat of fresh paint every few years would prevent further deterioration, but the statue continued to atrophy. I was worried that the damage would compromise the structural integrity of the entire piece which it eventually did.
The Calvary to the Rescue
I came to the realization despite all the research and physical repairs I had done, St. Francis needed professional help after 25 years. I consulted various professional restoration companies who worked with terracotta. A few came out for site visits and oddly offered conflicting advice on the best techniques and materials to use to fix it. When I tried to contract professionals, nobody wanted to commit to the project. I even considered tackling the repairs on my own again, but the suggested professional materials required special certification to use. I finally found a local, professional restoration artist, Michael Belman, to inspect the statue. Michael is the Objects Conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and he and his wife have a fine art conservation business. http://fineartconserv.com. He assured me that he had restored many terracotta pieces over his career and was willing to offer his services.
The back-end of the wolf had separated into fragments. Michael salvaged the larger pieces he could and treated the porous material with a strengthening solvent.
After the treated pieces had dried, they were re-assembled like a puzzle and cemented together with a two-part epoxy.
Now that the wolf was structurally sound again. He began the task of cosmetic repairs. Michael added a stainless steel mesh to help reinforce the statue and create a surface to add more epoxy. This time he added a colorant to the epoxy that matched the terracotta.
The epoxy had a very short open time, but Michael was able to smooth it out with mineral spirits. After the repairs had a fresh coat of paint they were barely noticeable. He did a great job, I am truly grateful.
A special thanks goes out to my Mom, Tina Panza, who insisted on funding the restoration project. My Mom has been an active member of the parish since 1971.