School of Art Students Restore Historical Plaster Casts
Written by Douglas Chapman
The Art History corridor in the Texas Tech School of Art is now adorned with newly restored, 100-year-old plaster casts of original stone sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece and Saint-Fortunat in Charlieu, France. Thanks to the vision of Dr. Janis Elliott, Assistant Professor of Medieval Art History, and the hard work of Art History majors, Megan Grann, a senior from Arlington, and Gilbert Jones, a senior from Lubbock, these plaster casts, can now be seen and appreciated by students, faculty, and the public. Out of a total of eight casts, three come from the west façade of Saint-Fortunat, in Charlieu in France (12th century AD). One of them depicts “The Last Judgment” and is displayed in lecture hall B-01. The other, entitled “Christ (?) Blessing,” is displayed at the head of the corridor. It is joined by six other casts taken from the western frieze of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece (447-438 BC) which depict soldiers on horseback participating in a procession to honor the goddess Athena.
“About a year ago,” Dr. Elliott said, “Paula Yeager, Visual Resources Curator, and I, decided to do something about the plaster casts which had sat neglected for many years. Paula got us started with some background research into materials and techniques and also about other collections of plaster casts.” In the process, Dr. Elliott found that the casts had an interesting history and were rather valuable as well. “In the late 19th and early 20th century,” Dr. Elliott explained, “there were several companies in the world that supplied plaster casts of ancient art to museums, colleges and universities as a teaching tool for students in technical drawing as well as an introduction to ancient and classical art. Two of those companies were the Caproni Brothers out of Boston, Massachusetts, and August Gerber from Cologne, Germany. At that time, one could actually order the plaster casts from a catalogue at prices from less than ten dollars to one hundred dollars. We believe Dr. William Battle, of the University of Texas, Austin, purchased casts from those companies between 1894 and 1923 for his university.” Although no solid documentation has been found, it is believed that the eight casts were acquired by Texas Tech in 1957 from what is now called the Battle Collection of Plaster Casts in the Blanton Museum of Art at UT Austin. “These casts are now worth several thousand dollars apiece. They just don’t make them anymore,” Elliott added.
Dr. Elliott said she wanted to involve Art History students in the project to gain professional experience in the conservation and installation processes. She invited Megan Grann and Gilbert Jones to work on the casts as an Independent Study course. “They are among our best students,” Elliott said. “I didn’t realize this project would be as labor-intensive as it has been. I am so glad I chose these two students. I knew that Megan and Gilbert would see it through to the end, and do the job right the first time - they are perfectionists,” she added. Megan Grann had this to say: “I can’t describe or categorize everything we learned on this project. We learned a lot about didactic writing, museum quality plaster restoration - minor to major, aesthetics, restorative painting, and display. This was just such an involved project- it is hard to put it all into words."
“We learned how to reinforce the plaster, how to fill in gaps and repair cracks to the point where you would not know the damage had been repaired unless you knew what you were looking for,” Gilbert Jones said. “This project also taught us different ways to approach a variety of problems - problem solving skills. We used a process of elimination and tried multiple techniques and all available options to obtain our desired results,” he said. “This was a much bigger project than we had originally anticipated,” Dr. Elliott repeated. “We eventually found that additional expertise would be needed,” she said. Dr. Peter Briggs, Helen DeWitt Jones curator of art at the Museum of Texas Tech, agreed to oversee the curatorial aspects of the project and provided advice and safety guidance for the project.
Both Grann and Jones went to UT Austin and to Dallas to do research. While in Dallas they met with John Dennis, conservator at the Dallas Museum of Art, who agreed to come to Lubbock to present a workshop on the restoration of plaster casts and conservation techniques. “We also brought in the help of botanical illustrator, Patricia Koemel,” Elliott said. “Her expertise in color theory was invaluable in determining the colors needed to achieve a uniform surface across the Parthenon casts. Ms. Koemel mixed the colors and instructed Megan and Gilbert on the application of paint and techniques, which involved the careful blotting of a very thin wash of paint with natural sponges and rags,” she said.
The display cases and the shelf in B-01 were designed, constructed, and mounted by School of Art staff, Bob Herman and Mark Bond, with the assistance of many students. “Now that the project is finished, we want to thank everyone who was involved for all of their help,” Dr. Elliott said. “It has been a rewarding and gratifying experience. We invite anyone who is interested to come by and view our finished product. It has brightened up our formerly drab corridor,” she said.