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Buddha Polishing

Restoring local monuments

By Christa Palmer

It takes more than a bucket of soapy water, a scouring brush and some elbow grease to rejuvenate a stained sandstone sculpture or a streaked bronze statue. When the San Francisco Art Commission's Adopt-A-Monument Program began in 1985 to raise funds for the restoration of local public art, the corroded Pioneer's Monument was cleaned with walnut shells.

Yes, walnut shells. To trained conservators the shells proved the perfect match for an aged metal surface.

"We treat each piece differently and distinctively, so as to maintain the integrity of the artist's work," explains Deborah Lehane, the Art Commission's civic art collection manager. "Sometimes a surface is gone over six times, each layer with a different treatment. Like a car that needs a wash and wax to prevent corrosion, an outdoor monument demands similar care."

Take Amazarasti-no Hotoke, for example, translated as "the Buddha that sits throughout the sunny and rainy weather without shelter." The city's oldest monument, presiding graciously in Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden, this bronze Buddha needs more than just a bath. In fact, the $81,000 restoration process will entail great patience.

Conservators trained in everything from physics to art history plan to insert arthroscopic equipment inside the Buddha to assess the damage to the cracking interior armature. Next, they will turn the Buddha on his side to replace the deteriorating base and reinforce the halo on his back. After repairing the structure, they'll remove the outer corrosion.

"Another $28,000 is needed for a permanent endowment to keep the Buddha healthy in perpetuity," Lehane adds. "The Buddha is the most urgent case on our list."

For a more aggressive treatment of larger pieces, conservators use glass peening (a glass-bead blast) or a sand blast. Then they apply corrosion inhibitors to protect the varying patina colors. For sandstone, mud clay packs are used to pull out stains and graffiti. Finally they seal the stone with a Teflon-based coating that allows removal of graffiti tags with warm water and a rag.

"Pitted and streaked faces come back to life," Lehane says. "No effort or amount of support or love is considered too small for the upkeep of these little time capsules."


For details on the 37 sculptures up for adoption, contact the Adopt-A-Monument Program, 25 Van Ness Ave., Suite 240, SF, 94102, 415/252-2593, or Friends of Recreation and Parks, 415/750-5105.

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From the February 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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