Early in my sophomore year at Stanford in 1998, a friend mentioned that Cantor Arts Center was hiring an outdoor sculpture maintenance technician. I was majoring in English and had little knowledge of visual art, much less outdoor sculpture. When I found out the position required the technician to drive an orange electric cart around campus, my interest was piqued. I applied and soon started cleaning the numerous outdoor sculptures on campus.
The job was a nice break from the sedentary monotony of reading 18th century British literature and writing (not so good) interpretations of modernist poems. The beautiful weather at Stanford offered idyllic backdrops for my trips in the orange cart. I soon became attached to the individual sculptures, often stopping between classes on my bike to inspect any new damage caused by bird droppings, skateboarding ruffians, or Frisbees. At the time, Rodin’s Thinker was still on display in front of Meyer Library, and was often the target of student pranks. As I cleaned, people often asked questions about how often sculptures needed to be cleaned, and why they needed to be cleaned at all.
In the spring of 1999, I drove by the Henry Moore Arch in front of the art building and saw two women heating the sculpture with a blow torch. I was a bit worried at first, but soon found out they were hot waxing the sculpture. Apparently heating the bronze forces out water from the pores in the metal, and helps the wax to penetrate further. I honestly had no idea metal had pores, and found it poetic that the surface of a Rodin bronze breathes, like human skin. That was how I met Tracy Power of Tracy Power Objects Conservation in San Francisco. Cantor Arts Center hires her to perform regular waxing and conservation treatment of many objects on campus and within the museum.
In addition to washing and inspecting the sculptures on campus, the sculpture maintenance technician also has the opportunity to assist Tracy on large projects. That summer, I worked full-time with the museum and helped Tracy wax all the Rodin bronzes in Cantor Arts Center garden. This included the enormous Gates of Hell, which lived up to its name as temperatures topped 100 degrees at the sculpture’s surface, creating a truly infernal experience. Other fun jobs included repainting the Alexander Calder Falcon sculpture in front of the law school, and spraying all the wooden sculptures in the Papua New Guinea sculpture garden with wood preservative. The work was often physically demanding and complicated by setbacks, but it was always fulfilling to see the beautiful finished product.
My three years working with Cantor Arts Center expanded my understanding of how outdoor sculptures are fabricated (some better than others), and the problems that inevitably arise when objects are placed outdoors. Even when I was not working, I became more aware of art in public spaces and the signature styles of individual artists. Today, I still get excited to see a favorite artist in the field, yet often feel saddened when I see an outdoor object poorly maintained. Outdoor sculpture to me has become an anchor to large spaces that I would normally walk past quickly. They make me pause and admire how a Richard Serra sculpture dramatically divides the sky; or the graceful motion of a George Rickey; or the stunning green patina and poetic forms of a Barbara Hepworth.
My job at Cantor Arts Center also proved to be a foreshadowing of my current work as an assistant to the blowtorch woman, Tracy Power, at her conservation studio in San Francisco. As the weather gets warmer, we have just started mixing waxes and plan to wash, wax, passivate and paint sculptures at Stanford and all over the Bay Area. It is still a fulfilling moment when, at the end of a long day of work, we admire how a fresh coat of wax or paint can breathe new life into a weathered outdoor sculpture.
Thomas Nguyen ‘01