Since 2008, most visitors to the museum and nature center at John James Audubon State Park have passed the American Bald Eagle statue when walking up the front steps. Created by Kentucky artist, Raymond Graf, it is one of 16 life-sized bronze sculptures based on illustrations in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America that are located around the town of Henderson, Kentucky.
The Friends of Audubon installed and unveiled the eagle statue at John James Audubon State Park on April 26, 2008. For the past 12 years, it has remained at the entrance to the building, signaling both the museum’s incredible collection of Audubon art and artifacts as well as the nature center’s emphasis on education and wildlife observation. As with all the objects inside the museum, we want this beautiful outdoor sculpture to last for future generations to see and take delight in. This is why, once or twice a year, our museum curator spends several hours cleaning, waxing, and polishing the statue.
Today I’m sharing with you a behind-the-scenes look at this work, which took place in late April across the span of a sunny, temperate morning and afternoon.
Materials and Tools
- Orvus WA Paste
- Renaissance Micro-Crystalline Wax Polish
- Soft brushes
- Soft cloth
- Safety Glasses
Outside, I arranged the stepladder next to the sculpture and placed the materials near the steps leading to the museum. I put on my gloves and safety glasses (always recommended when using chemicals and cleaners) before opening the large container of Orvus WA Paste. This is a highly concentrated and gentle biodegradable soap often used for cleaning fine textiles, upholstery, and quilts. It can also be applied as a cleaning agent to masonry and outdoor sculpture.
I scooped about two fingers full of the paste into the bucket of hot water. This was just enough soap to have some bubbles on top of the water, but not too much (which could leave a residue on the sculpture and require extra rinsing later). After mixing the solution, I soaked a brush in the liquid and started carefully scrubbing off dirt, dead ants, bird excrement, and little bits of leaves and grass from the sculpture’s surface.
I spent about 30 minutes concentrating on cleaning every part of the eagle, fish, and rocks. All around me, I could hear different songs and calls coming from birds in the museum garden and nearby woods. It was a pleasant natural soundtrack that helped me focus on my work.
When I felt the sculpture was finally clean enough, I walked over to turn on the water faucet in our garden and brought the hose back with me. I rinsed the sculpture thoroughly with fresh water to remove soap suds and remaining debris. As I was doing this, I realized my shoes – a comfortable pair of canvas slip-ons – were getting soaked by the water falling from the sculpture and pedestal. I made a mental note to wear different shoes the next time I clean the eagle.
At this point it was time to let the sculpture dry in the sun. This was very important — the next step would be waxing the sculpture and applying wax with water still on the surface could trap moisture, which contributes to deterioration of metal. I returned the hose to its place, turned off the faucet, and gathered my materials and ladder to take to the museum building. I came back for the heavy bucket of soapy water, which I would pour out in a sink inside.
After eating lunch and checking my email, I walked outside with my ladder and materials. By now the sculpture was completely dry and ready for the Renaissance Wax. This is a fantastic wax polish that was developed by the British Museum in the late 1950s for fine art conservation. It is commonly used to restore and protect metal objects (including outdoor bronze sculptures exposed to the elements), providing a barrier against moisture and oxygen from the metal surface.
Taking a small soft brush in hand, I swirled it lightly in the can and started painting a thin, even layer of wax onto the base of the sculpture. As the wax melted into the surface of the metal, I could see the substance lose its initial shine and become dull. I continued to move around and up the eagle, slowly brushing wax in small sections from the rocks to the fish to the talons to the belly to the wings to the head. The temperature was becoming noticeably warmer. I needed to stop a few times to take a drink of water and peel the hot, damp gloves off my hands. Still, it was the perfect weather to do this work: sunny, not too humid, and warm enough to set up the wax for better absorption.
Once the entire sculpture was covered in a layer of wax, I polished it all over with a soft white cloth until the metal gleamed in the sunlight. I took some time afterwards to look closely at details of the eagle’s feathers, the marks left on the fish’s body by the talons, and the lines on the fish’s tail — now made more visible by the slow work of removing the grime. It was one of those small moments of satisfaction to savor and enjoy.
This blog post was written by Heidi Taylor-Caudill, Curator of the John James Audubon State Park Museum.