JHU's sculptures see a renaissance

Menagerie: Ten years after it was vandalized and broken, a collection of animal pieces in a wooded garden on the Homewood campus has been restored.

November 11, 2003|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

A stone menagerie on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, damaged by hammer-swinging vandals more than a decade ago, has been restored to its quirky glory. Almost.

A noted New York art conservator recently replaced pointy ears, patched smashed snouts and restored cracked heads on some of the 10 fanciful cast-granite and marble animal sculptures that were battered a few years after their 1983 dedication in a wooded garden near Hopkins' stadium.

Only one critter resisted restoration: a black granite penguin, which remains headless.

Expert conservator Steven Tatti, who has restored more than 50 works of sculpture in Baltimore, could not put the penguin back together again for lack of a "before" photograph, said the curator of the university collections, Rob Saarnio.

The lack of a readily available photograph of the intact penguin says a lot about the largely ignored Bufano Sculpture Garden.

Its animals were given to Hopkins in the hope of advancing the reputation of colorful Italian-born sculptor Beniamino Bufano (1898-1970).

Bufano, who lived and worked in San Francisco for most of his life, was "the big-hearted, hot-tempered artiste" who embodied the large-living bohemian ideal, according to a December 2000 story by San Francisco Chronicle art critic David Bonetti. An avowed peace activist, Bufano chopped off a finger and mailed it to President Woodrow Wilson to protest World War I. He was a friend to Sun Yat-sen and Mahatma Gandhi, and spent his later years creating "big, phallic-shaped madonnas dedicated to peace," Bonetti wrote. He also crafted a sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi made of melted guns.

Bufano's public sculptures of animals are familiar sights around San Francisco. But they are largely unknown in Baltimore.

Bufano's son, Erskine, brought the sculptures to Hopkins in hopes of promoting his father's work on the East Coast, the university's former director of historic houses, Cindy Kelly, wrote last year in the Hopkins alumni magazine.

Bufano guaranteed that the sculptures would not be taken back by their owners, and in May 1983, the garden was dedicated in Dunning Park, which lies just yards from the southeast corner of the stadium.

Under the trees are a bear with cubs, an owl, an elephant, a house cat, a horse, a snail, Bactrian and dromedary camels, a ram and the penguin.

The sculptures were overlooked until 2000, when Hopkins began planning to reshape the Homewood campus under a new master plan.

"Here was a chance to improve a sort of underutilized and sort of forlorn wooded area," Saarnio said.

As part of a plan that involves replacing asphalt walks with bricks, building retaining walls, and planting new shrubs, ground cover and perennials, Hopkins paid Tatti $21,000 to repair the damaged sculptures.

Tatti, former chief curator of sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, has restored outdoor monuments in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Cleveland. He has worked periodically in Baltimore since 1981, as part of efforts to restore monuments in Mount Vernon.

In late October, he and a crew spent about a week working on the Bufano sculptures. Although the penguin has not been repaired, the university has unearthed some photos of the original sculpture and hopes to complete its restoration.

No one has assessed the restored sculptures' monetary or artistic value.

"Let's just say they are just interesting, moderately significant animal figures," Saarnio said.

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