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College Walk
 
 
   
Wax Philosophical

Hunched in the deep early morning shade of Philosophy Hall, he seemed more naked than usual. Two people on green stepladders were stroking his back and his thigh with fat round brushes, dipped occasionally into muddy-looking cans. Flames suddenly shot out from behind his left buttock. After scrutinizing a small patch of skin, or rather bronze, one of the workers, Patty Miller ’00GSAPP, stepped down and turned off her blowtorch.

“We’re doing a maintenance cleaning and rewaxing,” she explained, staring appraisingly at Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, who in turn stared down at the lawn. “It’s a microcrystalline wax with a corrosion inhibitor.” The propane torches are used to heat the surface of the bronze, so that the paste wax liquefies and spreads evenly when it goes on.

A senior conservator project manager with Conservation Solutions, Inc. (CSI), located outside Washington, D.C., Miller is working side by side with Ryan Greene, a sculptor who also is learning the conservation trade. She and two other principals of CSI are graduates of Columbia’s Department of Historic Preservation program, the first in the country and the pioneer training center for artists and historians in a profession that sprang up in response to the tragic destruction of New York’s Penn Station, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece razed in 1964. CSI founder Joseph Sembrat ’93GSAPP, a metals specialist, wrote his master’s thesis on “The Conservation of Outdoor Bronze Statuary.” Assistant Conservator and Project Manager Justine Posluszny earned her Master of Science in 2007.

Miller, who does metals, masonry, and plastics, began as a bronze caster at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of very few city art schools to still house a foundry. She’s become an expert in testing and assessment, working in a CSI laboratory in Maryland.

“We use a lot of artists as technicians, implementing treatments we develop through research,” she said. “As a senior conservationist, I direct the work. Over at Riverside Church, I have other artists, many of them local, working on stone.” She takes out a photograph of a badly decayed carved limestone cherub with only part of a face. “You can see it’s a lifesaving issue. For something like this, we will sometimes just stabilize what’s left, or we’ll do composite repairs, attaching more material and then sculpting it to match the original.”

Much of CSI’s restoration work takes place outdoors, and is therefore seasonal, and the conservationists go in teams. In New York, they live in sublets while dividing their time among Columbia campus sculptures and other jobs, often at the Metropolitan Museum or the New York Public Library. They have home bases, but otherwise they’re like any other itinerant workers. “My dog has grandparents. Otherwise it would be impossible,” Miller said.
Greene shrugged. “I don’t even own a plant.”

Although The Thinker is only about six feet tall, the figure is complex, curled and twisted, and the head, at close range, looks gigantic. “It can take up to a week to do a simple treatment like this,” Miller explained, nodding toward the statue. “A lot depends on what we need to do to remove existing coatings, including wax, and whether there’s patination that must be done first.”

How often does a statue need to be waxed?

Sarah Weiner, curator of Art Properties and director of Columbia’s Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Gallery, says that sculptures should be washed and waxed annually. “But even with regular maintenance, after some years bits of wax pop off, the metal is exposed, and it becomes corroded. When that happens, we’ve just got to work on them.”

Weiner has known Sembrat for 10 years. CSI restored Athena, in Low Library, and Alma Mater, and this time they’re working on four pieces. “CSI wasn’t chosen because they’re Columbia graduates,” she said. “We have worked with other sculpture conservators, with less good results.” Restoration is always an expensive proposition, so it pays to do it right the first time. The ticket to restore Clement Meadmore’s Curl, in front of the business school — “in disastrous condition,” Weiner lamented — could run as high as $200,000, which includes hiring a crane to move it off campus. “These days, when we accept a gift of outdoor sculpture, the donor will often give an endowment for maintenance as well.”

The Thinker was a gift from Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia from 1902 to 1945, who ordered the cast in 1930 from Rodin’s original foundry. In the era before acid rain, no one could have foreseen what 78 years of weather could wreak on a sculpture’s complexion.

But Miller and Greene were making progress: an all-over bronze color began to unify what had been a streaky surface. “We also did some repatination to bring down the greenish copper-sulfate appearance,” Miller said. But doesn’t the green stuff make it look old and interesting? Miller smiled. “There’s a broad dialogue in conservation about patina, about age being part of the artwork,” she answered diplomatically. “But not all patinas are protective; some are a matter
of corrosion.”

Picking up her blowtorch, she smoothed away some more of The Thinker’s age spots.

— Margaret Moorman
 

 
 
   

Handicap This

Wayne Allyn Root ’83CC, professional sports prognosticator, gives the following picks: John McCain will beat Barack Obama; the Colts will meet the Cowboys in this season’s Super Bowl; and in 2024, Root himself will occupy the Oval Office.

“I plan on being the president of the United States in 16 years,” Root says from his 7000-square-foot home in suburban Las Vegas. “People laugh at that, but I’m going to do it.”

Predicting the future is not an exact science, but it is good business. As founder and chairman of the publicly traded sports handicapping company Winning Edge International, Root sells his sports picks — Guaranteed Winners! — for as much as $25,000 for a season package. While those in the gambling business call him a tout, Root prefers oddsmaker. America’s oddsmaker.

“The type of person who gambles on sports, gambles on business,” he says. “When business closes at 5 on Friday, they all go to Wayne Root. I am the Merrill Lynch of the weekend.” (This comparison was made shortly before Merrill Lynch was bought by Bank of America.)

These days, however, Root is diversifying: he’s the Libertarian Party’s candidate for vice president of the United States.

Root’s specialty might be football, but politics is his passion. By his estimation, though, politics is harder to predict. The rise of Barack Obama to national prominence, for example, would have been hard to foresee five years ago, before Obama gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. When the Columbia College Class of 1983 met for its 20th Reunion it was Root, not Obama, who was asked to speak as part of a panel of distinguished alumni.

Like his running mate, former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, Root was previously a lifelong Republican. His political hero was Barry Goldwater; he named his youngest son Remington Reagan; and in 2005, he authored Millionaire Republican: Why Rich Republicans Get Rich — and How You Can Too! But his “libertarian awakening,” as he describes it, began when the federal government banned online gambling in 2006. Runaway federal spending and the ballooning deficit only hastened the conversion. Root’s issues are economic and personal freedom, and he says his experience as a fast-talking self-promoter, radio and TV personality, author, and small-business owner will serve him well in higher office.

“I’m someone who believes very strongly that all politicians are entertainers and salesmen,” he says.

Since his nomination in May, when he was introduced to the Libertarian convention by his 16-year-old daughter Dakota, Root has spent most of his time giving radio interviews, hoping to connect with disaffected Republicans and begin his quest for the White House. His goal is to win three to seven million votes in November.

Those numbers aren’t exactly Obamian, but Root nonetheless draws parallels between himself and the Democratic nominee. Both came from modest beginnings. The son and grandson of butchers, Root grew up in a two-family home he shared with his grandparents in Mt. Vernon, New York, where he was “the only Jewish kid in an Italian neighborhood surrounded by an all-black town.” He began at Mt. Vernon High School and then transferred to the Thornton-Donovan School, a private school in nearby New Rochelle. Growing up, Root wanted to succeed Jimmy the Greek as the biggest personality in oddsmaking. He made a local name for himself in a 1977 profile in the Mt. Vernon Daily Argus of his betting abilities when he claimed a success rate of 73 percent.

For a brief time, Obama’s and Root’s paths did cross. They both majored in political science at Columbia, but their lives diverged sharply after they graduated in 1983. Obama became a lawyer and moved to Illinois, where he married a fellow lawyer; Root followed his entrepreneurial spirit to Nevada, where he started a gambling business and married a former Miss Oklahoma. Debra and Wayne Root now have four children, including an infant, Contessa Churchill. In 2006, Root joined previous honorees such as Wayne Newton and Sammy Davis Jr. in being inducted into the Las Vegas Walk of Stars. If Obama has the audacity of hope, Root simply has audacity.

“We are the greatest dichotomy that has ever run for president and vice president of America who happened to be in the same college class,” he says.

So 25 years later, their lives have intersected again. Both candidates’ runs could be viewed as historic firsts. Barack Obama is the first African American to win the nomination for the presidency of a major political party. Wayne Root, meanwhile, points out that he is “the first dad with home-schooled children in modern political history to be on a ticket.” And, he adds, the first Nevadan.

And while he’d settle this year for vice president, Root isn’t betting on it. He has his eye on the long term.

“I’m the most qualified person in the world,” he says, “to end government as we know it.”

— Jeremy Smerd ’03JRN
 

 
 

Matinee Hero

In 1985, Youngman Kim, a film student at NYU, had a bright idea. Frustrated by the limited video selection in the basement of Tower Records, at that time the only video store in the neighborhood, Mr. Kim (he is always Mr. Kim) began acquiring videotapes from local and international sources, and within months opened the first Kim’s Video, at Avenue A and East 5th Street. Serving a market of students, underground filmmakers, and other local cineasts, the store exuded a grungy atmosphere of tattered movie posters and punk rock, and boasted a growing collection of independent and foreign movies that quickly made it an East Village landmark. In 1994, Mr. Kim opened Mondo Kim’s on St. Mark’s Place, a three-story temple of video and music that became the headquarters of a mini-empire that, by 2001, would stretch as far north as Morningside Heights.

“Columbia invited me to open Kim’s Video up there,” Mr. Kim recalled on a hot September day in his office in Mondo Kim’s. “The original location they proposed was too small. A few months later, they offered me another store, where the Deluxe Diner is now. Too small, again! In 2000, they showed me a space in a new building [the Broadway Residence Hall, at Broadway and 113th Street]. When I went up there I saw it was the right size, and accepted.” Mr. Kim, who is clean-cut and athletically built, projects the square-jawed authority of a seasoned flight captain. “I received a lot of respect and appreciation from faculty and students,” he said.

Mr. Kim, for his part, felt a personal connection with Columbia. Film division professor Dan Kleinman had been one of his teachers at NYU, and he was friendly with Erica Marks, who, at the time of the store’s opening, was director of development for Columbia’s School of the Arts. He offered discounts to faculty and, most generously, sponsored the annual Kim’s Video Award, a $5000 prize given during the Columbia University Film Festival, the annual showcase of thesis work from advanced MFA students (Mr. Kim selected the winning entries himself). Most notable for the community, Mr. Kim’s store carried thousands of movie titles, divided into every conceivable genre: Noir, Action, Avant Garde, Thriller, Comedy, Classic, Western, Musical, Horror, Asian Horror, GLBT. Blockbuster it wasn’t.

But business never really took off. Nor did the programs created by Mr. Kim and his staff gain much support. “We invited lots of authors, filmmakers, and producers,” he said. “But we didn’t get very strong feedback.” Mr. Kim lays part of the blame on the makeup of the neighborhood. “The area around Columbia is very commercial and conventional. And this is not going to satisfy young, creative, innovative students. They would rather come to Mondo Kim’s downtown.”
On September 15, 2008, Kim’s Video on Broadway closed its doors. The effort to bring the East Village aesthetic uptown came up against market realities. “I lost a lot of money four to five months every year, when the students are away. We could hardly make the rent.”

Still, Mr. Kim remained loyal to an institution whose commitment to film culture reflected his own. In early September, the University announced that Mr. Kim was donating the store’s immense video collection to the Columbia University Libraries. According to Nancy Friedland, who is media services and film studies librarian, the Butler Media Collection will receive some 30,000 DVDs and tapes, more than tripling its present cache of 13,000. The benefits of this gift will spread far beyond the film division.

“We’re seeing more and more classes with a film component,” Friedland said recently. “So whether it’s in Asian studies, international affairs, history, anthropology, the language departments — all are heavy users of feature film content. There is tremendous interest in this collection.”

As for Mr. Kim, he is again looking toward the future of film-based entertainment.

“People have less and less time to watch movies,” he said. “After work and exercise, people have about three hours before they go to bed, and a lot of that time is spent on e-mail. Within a few years, movies will be 50 to 60 minutes long. And consumers will be able to make their own short films on the computer.”

And so an era ends on Broadway. But perhaps the storefront’s future tenant, the New York–based cosmetics and novelty chain Ricky’s, will be of use to film students as well. Wigs and fake eyelashes, anyone?

— Paul Hond


 
  Out Back

The ferns, mint, foxglove, and tall grass
growing every whichway behind the kitchen
surpass anything I could say
about them. And the purple vetch
I pulled out yesterday—
perhaps I was wrong to think
it was strangling the others;
it might just as well have been
binding them all together…
though here I could be making yet
another mistake. Better to let them
all be, to take of them freely
by other means and without
much remark, the way the wind
bends and jostles the ferns,
and the bumblebees and moths
visit the last pink blooms at the tops
of the swaying foxglove stalks.


Jeffrey Harrison ’80CC
Harrison is the author of four full-length books of poetry, most recently
Incomplete Knowledge. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA.
 

 
 
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