College restores 30-year-old sculpture

A two-month-long restoration project has returned The Solar Wind, a sculpture by internationally-renowned sculptor Alice Aycock, to its gleaming, otherworldly splendor.

The sculpture, completed in 1983 and located at the Life Science Plaza, was rusting. Its neon light was no longer operating.  Its Plexiglas discs were broken.

"When we got to it, it was not in an advanced state of deterioration, but it was pretty close to it," said Mark Clark of Southwest Restoration, the Roanoke firm hired to restore The Solar Wind.

Clark and one of his firm's employees spent the better part of August and September removing rust and scale from the sculpture's metal pieces, repairing and re-tensioning steel ropes, and making cosmetic repairs such as grinding off old weld spatter and cleaning and polishing the sculpture's aluminum elements. A "sacrificial element" containing an alloy that will deter rust was buried near the sculpture.

The sculpture's Plexiglas discs had to be replaced. Each one originally had been attached to a series of gears and shafts, which were intended to be taken apart if needed, Clark said. Over the years, the gears and shafts had become very tightly attached - so much so that even when heated to 1,000 degrees in a metal shop, they wouldn't budge.

So Aycock was contacted for guidance on recreating the discs. Working from memory, the artist walked restorers through the process to ensure the pieces would be as close to the originals as possible.

 The Solar Wind was commissioned and generously gifted to Roanoke College by Sidney '42 and Ann Weinstein, whose names were recently revealed by the College with permission of their children. Sidney Weinstein, who died in 2009, was president and CEO of the Sidney's retail chain. Ann Weinstein, an artist, art critic and member of the College's Art Advisory Council, died in 2007.

Thirty years ago, the College received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to bring public art to campus. Three artists, including Aycock, were invited to submit scale models. The council, of which Ann Weinstein was a member, selected The Reading Garden, a complex of tables and benches by artist Siah Armajani, now located near the Admissions Office. But Weinstein so loved The Solar Wind that she and her husband commissioned Aycock to do the piece for the College, said Talia Logan, Olin Gallery director. Eventually an engraved plaque with the couple's names will be placed at the sculpture site, she said.

"Aycock is a force in the art world," Logan said. "The College is fortunate to have this piece."

Logan and Clark noted that when restoration work started in August, passers-by had less than kind words, asking, for instance, if the piece was finally being dismantled and hauled away. But as work progressed, the comments shifted.

"By the end of the process, the commentary had turned almost completely around," Clark said. "By the end, it was 'Wow, we own this?'"

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