Why does the Folger have two sculptures of “Puck” by Brenda Putnam, one outside and one inside? If you’ve read “Lord what fools these mortals be: The story behind Brenda Putnam’s statue of Puck,” you’ll already know that in 1930, the Folger commissioned Brenda Putnam (1890–1975) to make a life-size sculpture of “Puck” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the fountain on the west side of the building. This Puck, carved in marble by master carver Robert Alexander Baillie (1880–1961), led a hard life outdoors.
In 1943, “some person with a larger foot than brain” left tracks in the snow after breaking off Puck’s left thumb.1. Someone broke off the replacement thumb in 1946. Three years a vandal scratched “J.L.T. VA. ’49” on Puck‘s foot. In 1954, a toe disappeared. Both thumbs were gone by 1988, when someone used black felt marker to add glasses, a moustache, and other indignities.
Conservators gradually removed the marker by applying poultices, but in 1991, Puck was hit again—literally, this time. Not realizing how brittle marble is, someone gave Puck an enthusiastic high-five and broke his arm off. Drastic intervention was needed. There was only one good thing about this damage: it provided a perfect slogan for the conservation fundraising campaign, “Give Puck a Hand.”
Thanks to a grant from Save Outdoor Sculpture! and from private donations large and small, Puck left the Folger for major conservation treatment by Daedalus, Inc., in Watertown, MA, in March 2000.
At Daedalus, Inc., conservators began by slowly cleaning Puck with a series of baths and rinses. Like in 1988, they then used repeated poultices to pull out stubborn stains.
Finally, they reattached Puck‘s broken arm, and created replacements for the toe and both thumbs. Puck still shows his age, though. It’s simply not possible to repair the overall damage from being exposed to the weather for almost 70 years. If you’ve seen Puck up close in the theater lobby, you may have noticed what looks like dripping wax, especially on his right leg. These “drips” reveal the location of the original surface level: they’re quartz inclusions that remained behind when the marble (a much softer stone) wore away.
Puck was too fragile to go outside again, but leaving the fountain pedestal empty wouldn’t do. What should go there instead? The answer might not have seemed obvious at first, but it’s right there in the original contract with Brenda Putnam, dated May 26, 1930. The artist was to produce a “life-size figure in clay on or about October 1st, 1931” (Article II), and she would be paid a total of $6,000 (Article III). Included in that $6,000 was the cost of making a plaster cast from the finished clay piece, but—and here’s the key bit—Article III continues:
…the Owner assumes the cost of packing & shipping full-size plaster to foundry or carver, the cost of casting in metal or carving, and the cost of final transportation and setting in place of the finished work.2
In other words, Brenda Putnam began creating Puck without knowing whether the fountain sculpture would be cast in metal, or carved in stone. At the start, it looked like bronze would win out because a bronze sculpture on a marble base would tie in with the bronze grill-work on the marble building. Then the architects settled instead on using aluminum for the exterior metal, not bronze. A marble Puck became a certainty at that point, since casting a life-size figure in aluminum simply wasn’t feasible in 1930. By 2000, however, aluminum casting on that scale was perfectly within the realm of possibility.
Accordingly, Puck had a lengthy stop-over in Astoria, New York, on his way home from being conserved in Massachusetts. There, experts at Modern Art Foundry created an aluminum Puck using the “lost wax” method. The plaster cast from Brenda Putnam’s original clay figure was no longer available, so the team at Modern Art Foundry used marble Puck as the model. To oversimplify the process greatly, Modern Art Foundry created flexible rubber moulds of the front and back halves of marble Puck. Then they coated the insides of each hollow “half” of rubber mould with a layer of red wax. Then they put the wax-lined rubber halves together, head down, and filled the big hollow cavity in the middle with wet plaster. After the plaster core has hardened, the rubber mold is peeled away, leaving the red wax exposed. Imagine a hollow chocolate bunny on a base that’s open at the bottom. Now imagine him ears-end down, filled to the brim of his base with plaster of Paris.
Next, they need to encase the outside of the wax piece in plaster. Imagine putting your plaster-filled chocolate bunny ears down into an old milk carton, then filling the milk carton with with plaster. After that plaster has hardened, you heat the whole thing up so the wax (or chocolate) melts, and comes out a drain hole. Now you have an air space where the wax (or chocolate) used to be. It’s a hollow cavity exactly the same thickness as the wax (or chocolate) and exactly the same outer shape as the original. Now the actual “casting” happens: molten metal get poured into the empty cavity. After the metal hardens, the plaster gets chipped out and washed away from both the inside and the outside of the piece. In the end, you’re left with a hollow metal sculpture.
For a detailed explanation, with actual footage of Modern Art Foundry in action, I highly recommend the YouTube video “Wax Blood, Bronze Skin,” made in 1998 (start watching at 1m 37s if you want to get straight to the story). In it, Bob Spring (son of the founder) walks you through the whole process of casting a bronze duplicate of Augustus Saint-Gaudens Admiral Farragut Monument.
Twenty-two months (and $50,000) later, the Folger project came to a successful conclusion. Marble Puck was safely installed in the theatre lobby, on a limestone replica of the original marble base. Here’s a photo of the two of us at the party celebrating his return on January 17, 2002.
Meanwhile, aluminum Puck took over as guardian of the fountain. He was still alarmingly shiny at first, but we were assured he would soon take on the same patina as the rest of the exterior aluminum—which he did.
In September, Puck was crated up and taken away for safe storage for the duration of the Folger’s major renovation project. When construction is complete, Puck will return. The fountain is moving a bit north and east, closer to the building but still in the West Garden. Come find him then!
Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.