Forgotten Art Works Provide Rich Learning Experience

Posted: November 7, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Shellie Meeks and Ellen Layman
Art history students Shellie Meeks and Ellen Layman painstakingly clean a plaster cast that came from a Metropolitan Museum of Art collection.

By Colleen Kearney Rich and Ryan Effgen

Carol Mattusch has a knack for seeing the beauty behind the dust and dirt, and the potential in forgotten castoffs. For years, the Mathy Professor of Art History has taken in the “less popular” pieces from major museums, finding them a home at Mason and providing many hands-on educational opportunities.

During the 19th century, many museums in Europe and America collected plaster casts of well-known sculptures in other museums to augment their own collections of original works. By the 1890s, the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had grown so large that the museum began to put a large number of its 3,000 plaster casts into storage, says Mattusch.

By 2003, they had to be removed from the warehouse in the Bronx where they had been stored for decades. Mattusch got word of this and negotiated a gift of more than 50 sculpture casts from the Metropolitan to Mason. Since then, her students have been hard at work cleaning and cataloguing the plaster casts.

Most of the casts were made around 1900 and are examples of some of the best-known antiquities from the Mediterranean world – the Parthenon frieze from the British Museum, the Barberini Faun from the Munich Glyptothek, sculptures from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and a relief from Or San Michele in Florence.

They are stored across the Fairfax Campus – in Mattusch’s office and in the back kitchen of Student Union Building II – and off campus in what is known as the Brickey Shed on Mason graduate LeAnn Brickey’s property in Clifton. In September, the last shipment of casts arrived at the Brickey Shed in a U-Haul truck driven by Ben Ashworth, facilities technician in the Art and Visual Technology (AVT) Department.

Internationally known for her scholarly work with Greek and Roman bronzes, at Mason Mattusch has set her sights on restoring the casts with the help of students, exhibiting them on campus and recasting one or more of them in concrete for outdoor display. This has involved an interdisciplinary effort, sharing the resources of the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the Office of University Life.

The Challenge of Restoration and Renewal

“When we received the casts, they were all in horrible condition,” says art history student Shellie Meeks, who was involved at the beginning of the project. “These casts were stored in a warehouse in the Bronx for more than 50 years. One piece took more than five hours to clean with canned air, paint brushes and erasers. It was completely black when we got it.”

Ellen Layman
Ellen Layman uses an eraser to clean one of the casts.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Plaster casts cannot be displayed outside. “Plaster degrades when exposed to rain,” says Ashworth, who has been integrally involved in the project. “So I suggested that we cast them in concrete for outdoor display. I’ve worked with Tom Ashcraft [sculptor and AVT associate professor] on outdoor community arts projects using concrete as a building material before, but I had never cast concrete. I figured this would be an opportunity to get acquainted with the process.”

Ashworth researched the process and teamed up with AVT graduate student Nick Xhiku, a classically trained sculptor from Albania who had created concrete casts in the past. They made molds of the Metropolitan casts from a flexible, polyurethane rubber. These molds can be reused many times to create additional concrete casts. For the sculptures themselves, or “the positives” as Ashworth calls them, “we used white portland cement mixed with swimming pool aggregate, which contains marble chips. Our hope was that the marble chips and white cement would make the cast look as much like the original marble relief as possible.”

“Professor Mattusch’s idea was not only to produce the pieces but also to have her students involved in the project so they could see how it works step-by-step,” says Xhiku. To do this, Ashworth set up a short series of classes to walk the art history students through the process. The first concrete cast, of a relief representing a dancer, will soon be installed on a wall of Robinson Hall B. A second concrete cast of this dancer has been commissioned for the Prince William Campus.

New Homes for Old Pieces

Meanwhile, the plaster cast of the Barberini Faun—a statue nearly 10 feet tall—found a home in the breezeway between College Hall and Mason Hall. The original marble faun is in the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany, and was unearthed in Rome in 1620. “Barberini” is the family name of the owners. This cast was cleaned by Ellen Layman, BA Art History ’05, and repaired by Xhiku. The base was designed by Ashworth.

Two casts of horsemen from the Parthenon frieze are now on display in the lobby of Harris Theater. The casts were cleaned by art history major Kristin Ware and are mounted on brackets designed and produced by Ashworth, in consultation with Reid Herlihy, vice president for Facilities. Nearly 30 more casts are now clean and awaiting installation.

More than 15 students have worked on this project, and they are currently working on a printed catalog of the collection. “Identifying the pieces proved to be difficult at times,” says Meeks. “We have no idea where some of the pieces came from, so in some cases lots of research is required. It’s like trying to solve a 100-year-old mystery.”

“The students have been so engaged in this project,” says Mattusch, who is on leave this academic year to be a senior fellow at the National Gallery of Art. “It has been exciting to watch.”

For more information and to see the plaster casts that are not on display, check out the project web site.

Plaster case of horses
This frieze was recently installed in the Harris Theater lobby.
Photo by Colleen Kearney Rich

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