Ah, sweet pets. Faithful companions and goofy entertainers, they add spice to our lives and their mark on our possessions. Think of vases shattered by tail wags, textiles and paper personalized with body fluids, chair legs used as scratching posts, painted canvasses turned into agility hoops.
I had recent cause to be grateful for a particular pet mishap because it brought a William McElcheran Businessman sculpture my way, one of a series by the artist. Most of these are cast in bronze, so a full-colour papier-mâché example is of special interest. McElcherans overcoated and trilby-wearing businessmen are presented in a number of situations ranging from the expected (checking the time, running for the bus, in conversation with other businessmen) to the startling (riding a horse or standing in a one-legged kung fu pose). Art critics identify McElcheran as a humanist, with the figures in this series representing the Everyman, and I have been a fan since my first sighting several years ago.
The smaller-than-life-size businessman that made its way to my lab assumes one of the expected poses: he is seated on a marble plinth reading a scaled-down and collaged Vancouver Sun newspaper. Its headlines chronicle the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Meech Lake Accord, cross-border shopping, and A Dog Gone Good Deal at Eatons.
William McElcheran, Businessman, before treatment
Our sculptures problem? Dog had chewed away the tips of his shoes, exposing his internal anatomy. Businessman also showed signs of general wear and tear (abrasions on plinth corners and edges, and back crushing) for which the hound could not be blamed.
From the areas visible for examination, Businessman appeared to be made of a cardboard armature. This was fleshed out with a variety of materials, including lightly compressed paper, densely compressed paper, and green fabric covered with a skim coat of plaster. The whole thing had then been painted and coated with a varnish, probably an acrylic medium.
The first step of my treatment was to rebuild the tips of the feet. The bottom foot had the greatest loss, and I rebuilt its armature using cardboard (in keeping with the original), cut to shape and attached with thick methylcellulose adhesive. I then covered the foot tips with strips of rayon paper using methylcellulose, a modern twist on the newspaper-and-flour paste mâché familiar to schoolchildren. When these fills were dry, I covered them with a skim coat of Polyfilla cellulose and gave them a final shape with scalpel and sandpaper.
Deepish areas of abrasion I also covered with rayon paper and Polyfilla, reinforcing areas of the crushed back using the same materials. I inpainted all fills and areas of paint loss with watercolour, dry pigment and pastel ground in water, and coated them with acrylic medium to match the original varnish.
Being a paper conservator, I work mostly on two-dimensional art and documents. Businessman gave me an interesting 3-D project and a welcome opportunity to meet this oh so charming sculpture.