Sculpture saver

Updated: April 25, 2007 - 2:28 pm

Kristin Cheronis has a unique job: lovingly wax Downtown's outdoor statues so they are protected from the elements and the idiots

There are scores of salons Downtown that do bikini waxing, but only one beauty expert can give a hot wax to an outdoor sculpture.

Sculpture conservator Kristin Cheronis waxes and buffs public art pieces to ensure they remain true to their artists' visions and withstand the onslaught of urban elements.

Cheronis maintains the Mary Tyler Moore sculpture on Nicollet Mall and the Botero "Dancers" sculpture in front of the new Depot Office Center, 500 Washington Ave. S.

She said it's critical to preserve sculptures in the "direct line of fire" on prominent positions along major streets such as Washington Avenue and Nicollet Mall.

Acidic elements in the air and water, along with curious passersby who climb on the pieces, threaten sculptures the most, Cheronis said.

"They get covered in grime, salt from the street, bird guano -- all kinds of grit,"

she explained as she took a break from hot waxing the Botero bronze. "It's really

important work, because the sculptures outdoors are subject to enormous environmental pressures."

The Dancers, positioned in front of the new Italian restaurant Nochee, is a bulky piece depicting a nude couple dancing. The robust man and woman figures are locked in an embrace.

The piece is a creation of the renowned Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero -- one of the "most famous living artists in the world" according to Travis Hansson, director of California-based Victor Salmones Galleries.

Botero's signature is the bulky, curvaceous figure; his Dancers bronze is worth an estimated $500,000. Hansson said it would go for $1.5 million if sold today.

Cheronis applies a hot and cold wax treatment twice a year to keep the roughly 8-foot-tall sculpture pristine. Her four-hour wax treatment costs about $500.

Made in 2000, the Dancers piece has a smooth surface, which makes any dings more apparent. Cheronis identified signs of climbing on the sculpture's deep brown skin despite a fence around its perimeter and signs prohibiting climbing.

Without the upkeep, the statutes will become corroded, taking on a turquoise layer similar to the patina found on old buildings and cathedrals adorned with bronze ornamental pieces.

As a few of her assistants tended to the bronze couple, she took a break to explain her work. First, she washes the sculpture with a solvent to remove older coats of wax and other particles. Then she carefully heats the surface of the Botero piece with a propane-gas torch, which prepares the sculpture for the hot wax application.

The hot wax flows into pores in the bronze, serving as a protective layer. Then a cold wax layer is applied as a paste smeared on with a rag to make the piece shine. The two layers combine when she buffs the piece with thick painter's brushes.

Cheronis applies a more "rugged" wax coating to the bronze Mary Tyler Moore piece at 7th Street and Nicollet Mall four times a year.

Its central position on the Mall -- and Mary's TV fame -- makes it more prone to urban abuse. The sculpture faces several stresses: scratches, vandalism and splashes from buses.

"It is literally in the salt splash zone of buses. It's almost like being in a marine environment," she said.

Cheronis, who runs her own private sculpture conservation business called Kristin Cheronis, Inc. in Northeast Minneapolis, worked for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S., for 15 years before going solo.

She works on an estimated 70 indoor and outdoor sculptures in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester each year. Her most complicated piece is a three-story bronze near the Mayo Clinic.

She is among the only art conservators locally to specialize in outdoor pieces; most others work on indoor pieces. Most of the available work is concentrated in museums.

She said the outdoor work is especially important because the sculptures have a "much harder life" than their pampered, indoor counterparts.

She is motivated to spread hot wax in the hot sun partly because the Botero sculpture is among her favorite artworks Downtown.

"I love their solid forms -- the combination of the formal dancing pose combined with the fact that they are nude," Cheronis said. "To me, that's very playful."

The conservation work is a combination of material science, studio arts and art history. Those who pursue the field tend to be lovers of art and science, she said.

"I feel so lucky although the work can be physically hard at times," she said. "I feel privileged to work on art. I enjoy the art itself and returning it to the artist's original intent."