Art conservator Lori Trusheim leaned out of a second-story window and squinted through her camera at a 72-square-foot copper sculpture that has become a local landmark. The elements have taken a toll over the past three decades, and she wants it preserved.
But the piece, which depicts eight billowing, blue-green clipper ship sails, isn't in a public square or at a museum. It's mounted to the side of Patterson High School. It was commissioned by the city to represent Patterson's nickname, the Clippers, and students and faculty say it has become a defining part of the school.
The installation is one of many sculptures and other pieces of art that have been integrated into school landscapes across Baltimore. As the city begins the $1.1 billion project of renovating or rebuilding more than 100 of its most dilapidated schools, officials are taking inventory of this art trove and determining how — or whether — to preserve it.
Baltimore's schools feature some of the city's most prominent art.
The Lake Clifton campus of Heritage and Reach Partnership high schools features seven sculptures, including a bronze wave sculpted by Italian-American artist and modernist sculptor Harry Bertoia and an abstract interior wall relief by Jordi Bonet, a one-armed painter and sculptor who became internationally known for his ceramic, cement, bronze and aluminum murals.
A huge, brightly painted steel sculpture, "Nut and Bolt" by J. Arthur Benson, was built to look like it is holding up a walkway between two buildings at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School. Benson is a local artist who headed the Maryland Institute College of Art's sculpture department for three decades.
The Maryland Stadium Authority has hired conservators to take an inventory of the art in city schools and to make recommendations about what would be needed to restore and maintain the pieces. The General Assembly, when it approved the 10-year financing plan to overhaul city schools, put the stadium authority in charge of overseeing the major undertaking.
"Art is important to education," said Eric Johnson, a project executive with the stadium authority, "and to the extent we can keep it, we will."
How much art can be saved will depend chiefly on the budget, and the stadium authority hasn't put a price tag on the endeavor. That decision must be weighed against other needs. The city school buildings are the oldest in the state, many with inadequate facilities, broken windows and no air conditioning.
"We don't know what the extent and the impact is going to be," Johnson said. "We'll continue to evaluate as we go through the design process."
Trusheim and Diane Fullick, the city's other hired conservator, have been visiting schools since this spring to inspect the art and assess its condition. The process is expected to take years, and the stadium authority won't set its arts budget until all the assessments are collected.
The stadium authority is working with the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts on the preservation project.
At Patterson High, the "Sails" piece overlooks a sea of parked cars in the school's front lot. The city commissioned Tylden Streett, a MICA graduate and former professor who has exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and the Baltimore Museum of Art, to design the artwork in the early 1980s. Among the directives from city agencies was that the artwork had to be pigeon- and bullet-proof.
Trusheim said she is evaluating not only the aesthetics but the structural soundness of the pieces.
"I'm trying to find cracks or gaps, anything that would compromise its stability," Trusheim said as she took pictures of the installation on a recent morning.
The support rods need cleaning to remove layers of dirt and corrosion, but they're sturdy, Trusheim said. She noted that Streett used a different metal for the rods than he did for the sails, which have acquired a patina similar to that of the Statue of Liberty.
Trusheim documented the coloring, too. For the sails' rippling surface, she said, she'll recommend a biannual wash and a wax coating that will help saturate the copper to keep it from degrading.
"Our main mission is to restore the piece to the artist's original intent," Trusheim said. "We want to uphold that intent but halt the process of degradation."
Only so much of the examination can be done from a distance. Until the school removes the sculpture from the wall, Trusheim and Fullick will research its history. On Trusheim's recent visit, head custodian Ricardo Jordan, who has been at Patterson for nearly two decades, pulled out a written history of the school that listed decades' worth of alumni as she examined another sculpture in the school's courtyard.
The two conservators said they would like to get the students involved. Such a partnership would benefit the students and the art, Fullick said, as students could take ownership of the pieces and ensure that the art gets the restorative care it needs.
"I'm biased, but I think conservation is very interesting," she said. "It would be really great in a school setting. We could tailor it to the level of the students in the schools."
Patterson student government members Meleigha McCall and Jazmine Collins, both 17, look forward to one day returning as alumni and seeing the "Sails" piece incorporated somehow in the new or renovated school building.
Patterson has been held up as an example of why city school facilities need upgrading, and teachers and educators have complained about a lack of air conditioning and ill-equipped classrooms.
Even if the school looks completely different inside and out, alumni will see the clipper sails on the wall and remember how it used to be, McCall said. "It's good to add in new stuff, but people like old memories."
"It has been here for years," Collins said of the artwork, a constant through several administrations and many graduating classes. "It brings people together."
Jordan hopes to see the art saved. The head custodian serves on the planning board for the new building and has taken on the informal role of interior decorator, helping design office spaces and pitching ideas to administrators.
He'd like to see "Sails" moved to a courtyard with a water feature to go with it.
Patterson Principal Vance M. Benton called Streett's piece "vintage" and said he's planning a hallway devoted to an art gallery for professional and student work to complement it.
"Most folks are visual learners," he said. "It's important to have visually stimulating things here to help them develop as human beings."
"Art makes you think," said Robert Gilman, who has taught art at the school for 16 years. "You look at something and you draw something from your experiences. How does it make you feel? It's like a different language. It's critical to their development as people."
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