Using queen-size pantyhose stuffed with cotton cloth, a technician buffs William Lloyd Garrison’s bald head. It’s slow work, done by hand to bring out the natural sheen of the bronze.
The statue of Garrison — abolitionist, suffragist, journalist — sits high upon a chair on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Dartmouth and Exeter streets. It has since 1886.
That’s a lot of brutal Boston winters. And quite a bit of bird poop.
In a city steeped in history — and monuments eulogizing it — a group of experts is charged with removing the grit, debris, and muck from dozens of outdoor sculptures around the city, preserving the works, staving off costly repairs, and ensuring that visitors to Boston see the historic and artistic works at their clean and cared-for best.
Thus, the pantyhose.
“When we got here he was mottled. Now you can see more of the sculptural form,” conservator Rika Smith McNally said of the buffed-up Garrison statue. It was a sunny morning in early July, and she and several others were at work on the Mall, trying to undo harm caused in part by the long and bitterly cold winter.
“The weather can be corrosive and visually disfiguring,” she said. “After you work on [the sculpture], it comes alive.”
Mother Nature isn’t the only culprit. City life wreaks a different kind of damage on the city’s public art. Wads of chewing gum, supermarket stickers, cigarette butts, and other unsavory substances litter the sculptures, often calling for delicate removal methods. Gentle cleansers such as horse shampoo and rubbing alcohol help remove sticky substances; bamboo sticks loosen stickers.
Most of the more than 40 pieces of public art on the Mall, Boston Common, and the Public Garden are cared for by a number of conservators hired by the Friends of the Public Garden, who work in close partnership with the City of Boston.
“It’s really a museum without walls,” said Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden. “These experts in bronze and stone come to deeply know these pieces. They have that institutional history.”
The Friends of the Public Garden, now in its 45th year, spends hundreds of thousands annually on regular maintenance. It costs an average of $700 to take care of a piece of outdoor artwork, and several thousand for conservation work. But preventive care saves money in the long run. The cost to restore a piece of sculpture can be as much as $25,000 if it deteriorates without care, Vizza said.
Smith McNally, founder of conservation firm Rika Smith McNally & Associates of Natick, sets her schedule by the seasons. This year, she and her team spent most of June taking care of classic and more contemporary art in Cambridge and arrived at the Mall July 1 to clean her favorite piece: the Boston Women’s Memorial.
It features bronze figures of first lady Abigail Adams, poet Phillis Wheatley, and abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone. It is found between Gloucester and Fairfield streets.
“You don’t know how many people walk by and say, ‘This is my favorite. . . . I walk by [it] every day on my way to work,’ ” Smith McNally said.
‘When we got here he was mottled. Now you can see more of the sculptural form.’
Turns out, the Women’s Memorial has to be cleaned twice a year, Vizza said. The reason? Dog urine. Unlike other sculptures elevated on pedestals, these pieces are at street-level, positioned next to inscribed granite pedestals. They were created to be interactive and accessible to people. And apparently to dogs.
Conservators are also faced with tomfoolery. From time to time, people will steal parts from public artworks. George Washington’s sword in the Public Garden, Garrison’s feather quills, or other small tokens.
“It’s become a dare. We do regularly have to replace bronze swords,” Vizza said. “We have multiple swords made from fiberglass and painted to look like bronze.”
People contact the Friends of the Public Garden when there’s something wrong with a statue. One man called the office distressed that the water in Leif Eriksson’s fountain on the Mall was not flowing.
“[The art] challenges people to take notice,” Vizza said. “It’s so easy for us not to see what we’re looking at anymore. . . . Parks are not an amenity, they’re a vital necessity for urban living.”
Smith McNally’s troop of technicians is a diverse group of longtime employees and summer part-timers.
Emma Westling, 34, of Jamaica Plain, a museum collections management specialist who works with stained glass, joined the crew two months ago. On July 7, she donned a purple respirator along with Rory Beerits, 29, of Quincy, a jeweler and a sculptor.
They scaled a metal scaffolding to begin spraying a protective coat of Incralac. One could say it’s sunscreen for bronze. The clear acrylic lacquer has ultraviolet inhibitors and a pungent smell. They began spraying it between Garrison’s collar and bow tie and eventually covered the entire sculpture. The coating preserves a piece for a minimum of seven to 10 years, Smith McNally said.
Neighbors walking their dogs slowed down and cocked their heads. Some took cellphone pictures. Some thanked them for breathing new life into the art.
Regina Gaudette, a conservator from Lakeville who works in metal and wood restoration, said the appreciation is clear. “People act as if we’re taking care of one of their family members.”
Garrison looks serene. The sculptor, Olin Levi Warner, captured the Boston resident at 63 years old, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Inventory of American Sculpture. He’s holding papers. Under his chair is a book, quills, and an ink stand. Until last week, the powerful words engraved into the Quincy granite plinth were barely visible.
On one side are lines from Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator.
“I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard.” On the other side, it reads: “My country is the world — My countrymen are all mankind.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.