ELMWOOD — Lorado Taft, a prolific sculptor known for working large, created a series of miniatures at the end of his career.
Designed to teach children about art, Taft’s nine, highly-detailed dioramas show a day in the life of eight different sculptors.
“All the sculptors were either stone or bronze sculptors, which was what Taft was,” explained Cricket Harbeck, a Milwaukee-based art conservator hired by the Elmwood Historical Society to restore the dioramas. Housed in a newly renovated, climate-controlled storefront at 102 E. Main Street, the dioramas will be on display for the first time during Elmwood’s annual Christmas Walk, 4-7 p.m. Dec. 7. It’s a great celebration of the artist, who was born in Elmwood in 1860 and buried there in 1936. The permanent display will be open to the public for years to come, though museum hours have yet to be determined.
Harbeck has been working full-time since September to restore the display, which had been in storage since 1985 when the Dayton (Ohio) Art institute donated it to the Elmwood Historical Society.
“When they were stored, they were subject to a lot of humidity and some water damage — I think there was a tornado?” said Harbeck. The dioramas were in a garage badly damaged by the 2010 tornado. “What I’m encountering is a lot of the wire armature is corroded. I’m having to excavate out a lot of deteriorated plaster and remove the corrosion from the armatures, seal that all up, fill it, and repaint.”
Even figurines that didn’t suffer from the moisture needed a good cleaning, so there aren’t many Harbeck hasn’t worked on.
When Harbeck first saw the dioramas, everything was still packed up and disordered. Hundreds of little pieces — figurines and all sorts of accessories — had to be sorted out and matched up with the right backdrops. She might have been overwhelmed if she didn’t already know a lot about Taft’s dioramas from restoring a set at the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Public Museum. That museum was founded after a local group purchased the dioramas in the late 1920s or early 1930s, said Harbeck, and the display has never been taken down.
Harbeck was restoring Kenosha’s dioramas when she got the call from Elmwood, and was excited to learn that they had one diorama she had never seen — the studio of Claus Sluter, a Dutch sculptor who worked in the early 1400s. Along with excitement came some concern: Harbeck had no idea what figures and accessories went into the Sluter diorama. The problem was solved when an internet search uncovered a single photo of the Claus Sluter diorama in the collection of the University of Chicago.
“Then I was able to pick out the right figures to go into the display,” said Harbeck. “I was hesitant to put things together in a way not determined by the artist. What you don’t want to do in conservation is to create a new narrative. It was a big relief when I found that photograph. We even found all the foliage pieces that go in the display.”
No one knows how many sets of dioramas Taft created. Harbeck only knows of three — Kenosha, the University of Chicago and Elmwood’s set. Marketing materials created to help sell the dioramas have been very helpful in the restoration effort. The Elmwood display came with paperwork containing key facts and a photograph showing figure and accessory placement for six of the dioramas.
The restoration has been an enormous job and Harbeck hired others to help along the way. Another conservator came up from Texas to assist with the figurines, and a lighting expert from Milwaukee was hired to re-do all the lighting inside the displays.
“He took down all the original lighting, and we put in LED lighting,” said Harbeck. “It was kind of fun because it was all the original light bulbs. We are trying to recreate the way the original lighting was positioned in the dioramas.”
As a conservator, Harbeck has documented every repair she’s made. On a recent weekday, she was in the process of recreating a missing leg on a figurine. Once she's finished, no one will ever know it was broken, except for the painstaking record she's keeping to document all her efforts. Every item that came with the display has been saved, from odd figurines and accessories, to chipped bits of plaster. Even the old light fixtures removed during the renovation are being saved. They will be stored inside the rolling bases constructed for each diorama.
Even when the display opens on Dec. 7, the restoration will still not be finished. One diorama was so badly damaged that Harbeck put it aside to work on later. There are also many smaller tasks Harbeck wants to complete before calling the project done. The truth is, a job like this is never completely finished, and Harbeck has consulted with the Elmwood Historical Society many times on where to draw the line. One thing they discussed was whether or not remove the yellowed varnish that covers most everything — when the dioramas were new it would have been clear. They decided to leave it.
“This is one of those projects you could just work on forever,” said Harbeck.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.