Planting art at the Weatherspoon

by Amy Kingsley

Brian Mitchell’s truck heaves itself up onto the hydraulic feet extending from its sides as his thumbs work the greasy toggles on a remote control strapped to his waist.

He coaxes an articulated arm out of its place behind the cab. It reaches out and paws the air inside the Weatherspoon’s narrow garage, a hook dangling from the end stirring the dust into circles.

The arm stops above a sculpture, sheets of half-inch steel broken by a series of diagonal slots, rising maybe 12 feet from the floor. Preparators Jack Stratton and Susan Taaffe thread winch straps through the opening, gently working fleece towels into the space between 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.”

Then he and Taaffe jump onto the truck and anchor themselves at the base of the sculpture, leaning toward the cab as the truck climbs uphill and turns the corner.

The work of an art preparator – if it’s done correctly – is invisible. They move paintings into place and dial in just the right amount of light, enough to wash the piece with illumination without damaging temperamental pigments. They wire and program digital works and occasionally take their lives into their hands moving steel sculptures weighing thousands of pounds.

Then, when the show comes down, they wrap, file and label, taking care to leave unmarked the art in the collection. That’s the preservation part of their work.

Stratton, who is also a painter, has worked at the Weatherspoon since 1990, a year after the opening of the current building. Taaffe joined the staff six years after him. The two may know the 5,500-piece collection better than anyone else on the staff.

What they’re doing today – moving three weighty sculptures into the revamped sculpture courtyard – will finish a renovation begun more than two years ago. The idea is to transform the courtyard from a bleak prison yard into a destination. Landscapers turned up the brick floor, installed sugar maples and black bamboo to soften the hard angles, and divided the courtyard into rooms. Stratton and Taaffe are moving the sculptures into those rooms under the direction of museum Director Nancy Doll.

“We’re trying to turn this into a place where people meet 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.”

Doll wants to turn the space into something more befitting the entrance of a museum. The sculptures – a half dozen of them – and the trees will welcome visitors into the museum before they ever cross the threshold.

Mitchell, who owns a Greensboro monument moving company, is struggling with the logistics of the morning’s second move. The weathervane sits on a marble base and reaches up almost to the garage ceiling. He and Taaffe lodge two-by-fours into slings cradling the base to decrease the slack and the distance the arm needs to rise.

After a couple false starts, the sculpture lifts an inch off the floor. That’s enough. The arm collapses in a smooth, mechanical whir, drawing the piece onto the truck.

“You’d better stand back,” Mitchell says. “I don’t think anybody wants a hydraulic fluid shower.”

That reminds Taaffe of the time Stratton was indeed bathed in fluid from a broken hydraulic line, an incident that left an outline on the garage floor like a shadow after an atomic explosion.

The lines hold up and the sculpture settles into its place between the trees. After some consultation with Taaffe and a tape measure, Doll decides on a spot between two saplings. It’s just after noon, and the silver sculpture catches and reflects the light poured upon it.

“I like that there,” Stratton says. “It looks really good.”

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