Restoring public artworks to their former glory

Kristin Cheronis restoring
Kristin Cheronis uses a swab to clean a sculpture in her Minneapolis conservation lab.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

From monuments and sculptures to bus benches and water fountains, there's a long, rich history of public art in the Twin Cities.

Yet, it's only in recent years that communities have understood the need to care for, preserve or even restore these works when they've been damaged or defiled. They've mainly been turning to one woman to get the job done.

When Hamline University re-located one of its most prominent sculptures, it hired Kristin Cheronis to oversee the move.

The hulking Bridgeman Memorial Court sculpture marked the school's 100th anniversary in 1954. It used to sit exposed on Snelling Avenue. Now it's nestled in a quaint courtyard a couple blocks away and Cheronis couldn't be happier with the way things turned out.

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"There's the monument, and you can see how dramatic the lighting is now, with the raking morning light really making the sculptural detail pop," she said.

Cheronis had to make sure the colossal carving was carried over in accordance with historic preservation standards, but she also needed to coach the workers on how to protect it as they cleaned, patched and tuckpointed the Indiana limestone back to something approaching its original glory.

And this was just a consulting job. Normally it's Cheronis who does the down and dirty manual labor.

Restoring bench
Kristin Cheronis and a member of her crew work on a bus bench on Nicollet Avenue. While he scrapes off some rust in one of its main joints, Cheronis uses mineral salts to wipe away graffitti.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"I'm what's called a sculpture and objects conservator," she said. "And that means that I work essentially on all three dimensional artworks and historic artifacts."

Cheronis has maintained or restored artworks for clients ranging from museums to municipalities, multinational corporations to private individuals. A third of her business is consulting. Another third involves outdoor public art and the other third is work she does indoors.

"We're in my conservation lab now, and this is where I work on indoor conservation treatments on artwork and artifacts," she said.

Cheronis jokes that her Minneapolis lab is like a cross between an art studio and a dental office. Many of her implements look like they should be used to scrape plaque off molars rather than rust off of a corroding sculpture.

In one corner, a weathered, wrought iron gate designed by Grant Wood waits for her attention. In another, there's a fragment from the wheel of a ship that sank in Duluth harbor in the late 1800s. Cheronis' job here is to strengthen the brittle wood without stripping its peeling varnish patina.

"In this case we literally would have to go flake by flake by flake across the surface, and usually using like the tip of a syringe, introduce a consolidant that will flow under the flake, and bond that flake to the underlying substrate," she said. "It can be very time consuming."

Art bench
An bus bench on Nicollet Avenue designed by artist Thomas Rose. Cheronis and her crew were hired by the city of Minneapolis to do some restorative work on it.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Fortunately for Cheronis, she's paid by the hour. Conservators tend to have really educational backgrounds that transcend the arts. That means more than a beginner's understanding of physics and some level of expertise in organic and inorganic chemistry, because of all the materials they work with.

"The nice thing about conservation, it's really a fusion of chemistry, art history, and studio arts, and then I am a studio artist as well so I have a love of all three of the legs of conservation in a way," she said.

The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul depend heavily on Cheronis to be the caretaker of their public art collections.

Minneapolis Public Art Administrator Mary Altman says Cheronis regularly does assessments of new works to make sure their designs are solid and align with the city's plans. Altman says that's saved Minneapolis a lot of money and greatly enhanced the art's durability.

"One of the reasons why we consistently hire her though is that over time she's developed such a strong knowledge of our collection, and what the issues are with artworks over the years," she said.

The same is true in St. Paul.

Kristin Cheronis
Kristin Cheronis is in high demand as a sculpture and objects conservator. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul rely heavily on her to be the caretaker of their public art collections.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

"God help us if something happens to Kristin because I frankly, at this point I don't know exactly where I would go."

To Christine Podas Larson, director of Public Art St. Paul, few conservators, and there are only just a handful in Minnesota, match Cheronis' intelligence, experience, and love for the artworks themselves. Plus,

"She's a perfectionist," Podas Larson said.

"Okay this is the Chippendale bench by the artist Tom Rose, who teaches at the University of Minnesota."

Cheronis and a small crew have come to Nicollet Avenue near downtown Minneapolis to work on a bus bench. It's got gooey rust along one of its main joints and graffiti on the front.

A man walking by half jokingly tells them to 'leave that poor bench alone.' He says his name is Eric Nordstrom and he works for a precious metals company up the street.

Bridgeman Memorial
Hamline University's Bridgeman Memorial sculpture is one of its most prized public art pieces. Kristin Cheronis helped guide the move of the carving to a courtyard on campus.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Am I being videotaped or something?" Nordstrom asked. "Recorded? I'm a passerby and I'm observing three people diligently working."

Nordstrom proceeds to give a play by play on what's happening to the bench. This kind of thing happens all the time to Cheronis, and it's what she enjoys about her job. She says people respond differently to public art than they do to art in a museum.

"You know, if they speak at all they whisper in a gallery and everyone's so polite," she said. "Well people, I think on public art, people get it that it's public, and that it's theirs."

And Cheronis says those people who stop and comment, remind her for who she's really working.