Planting art at the Weatherspoon

by Amy Kingsley

Brian Mitchell’struck heaves itself up onto the hydraulic feet extending from its sidesas his thumbs work the greasy toggles on a remote control strapped tohis waist. He coaxes an articulated arm out of its place behindthe cab. It reaches out and paws the air inside the Weatherspoon’snarrow garage, a hook dangling from the end stirring the dust intocircles. The arm stops above a sculpture, sheets of half-inchsteel broken by a series of diagonal slots, rising maybe 12 feet fromthe floor. Preparators Jack Stratton and Susan Taaffe thread winchstraps through the opening, gently working fleece towels into the spacebetween metal and nylon. The sculpture, a piece by Billy Lee, lurches off the concrete and bobs over to the truck bed. Stratton wipes his brow. "You know, a guy died putting in a Richard Serra piece," he says. "He was crushed." Thenhe and Taaffe jump onto the truck and anchor themselves at the base ofthe sculpture, leaning toward the cab as the truck climbs uphill andturns the corner. The work of an art preparator – if it’s donecorrectly – is invisible. They move paintings into place and dial injust the right amount of light, enough to wash the piece withillumination without damaging temperamental pigments. They wire andprogram digital works and occasionally take their lives into theirhands moving steel sculptures weighing thousands of pounds. Then,when the show comes down, they wrap, file and label, taking care toleave unmarked the art in the collection. That’s the preservation partof their work. Stratton, who is also a painter, has worked atthe Weatherspoon since 1990, a year after the opening of the currentbuilding. Taaffe joined the staff six years after him. The two may knowthe 5,500-piece collection better than anyone else on the staff. Whatthey’re doing today – moving three weighty sculptures into the revampedsculpture courtyard – will finish a renovation begun more than twoyears ago. The idea is to transform the courtyard from a bleak prisonyard into a destination. Landscapers turned up the brick floor,installed sugar maples and black bamboo to soften the hard angles, anddivided the courtyard into rooms. Stratton and Taaffe are moving thesculptures into those rooms under the direction of museum DirectorNancy Doll. "We’re trying to turn this into a place where peoplemeet for lunch," Doll says. "We’re going to put some benches out here,and since we’ve got wi-fi, people can come in and do work out here." Dollwants to turn the space into something more befitting the entrance of amuseum. The sculptures – a half dozen of them – and the trees willwelcome visitors into the museum before they ever cross the threshold. Mitchell,who owns a Greensboro monument moving company, is struggling with thelogistics of the morning’s second move. The weathervane sits on amarble base and reaches up almost to the garage ceiling. He and Taaffelodge two-by-fours into slings cradling the base to decrease the slackand the distance the arm needs to rise. After a couple falsestarts, the sculpture lifts an inch off the floor. That’s enough. Thearm collapses in a smooth, mechanical whir, drawing the piece onto thetruck. "You’d better stand back," Mitchell says. "I don’t think anybody wants a hydraulic fluid shower." Thatreminds Taaffe of the time Stratton was indeed bathed in fluid from abroken hydraulic line, an incident that left an outline on the garagefloor like a shadow after an atomic explosion. The lines hold upand the sculpture settles into its place between the trees. After someconsultation with Taaffe and a tape measure, Doll decides on a spotbetween two saplings. It’s just after noon, and the silver sculpturecatches and reflects the light poured upon it. "I like that there," Stratton says. "It looks really good."