Ah, sweet pets. Faithful companions and goofy entertainers, they add spice to our lives and their mark on our possessions. Vases shattered by tail wags, papers personalized with unspeakable body fluids, painted canvases used as agility hoops: these are a few of their favorite things.
I had recent cause to be grateful for one particular pet mishap because it brought a William McElcheran Businessman my way, one of a series that the artist created over several years. Most businessmen are cast in bronze, so a full-color Paper Mache example is of special interest. Sporting overcoats and trilbys, McElcheran’s businessmen are presented in a number of situations, ranging from the expected (checking wristwatches, running for the bus, conversing 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 Businesssmen representing Everyman. 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: 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 Eaton’s. The problem? Dog had chewed away Businessman’s shoe tips, exposing his internal anatomy. Businessman also had some general wear and tear (abrasions on plinth and crushing to the back) for which the hound could not be blamed.
From the areas visible for examination, Businessman appears to be made of a cardboard armature fleshed out with a variety of materials including lightly compressed paper, densely compressed paper and green fabric covered with a skim coat of plaster. This is then painted and coated with a varnish, probably an acrylic medium.
The first step of the treatment was to rebuild the tips of the feet. The top foot had the greatest loss and its armature was rebuilt using cardboard (as per the original) cut to shape and attached with thick methylcellulose adhesive. The foot tips were then covered with strips of rayon paper using methylcellulose, a modern twist on the newspaper/flour paste medium familiar to school children. When dry, fills were covered with a skim coat of Pollyfilla and given final shape with scalpel and sandpaper. Crushed areas of the back were reinforced and deep abrasions filled using the same materials. Fills and abrasions were then inpainted using watercolor, dry pigment and pastel ground in water and coated with acrylic medium to match the original varnish.
Being a paper conservator, most of the art and documents that I work on are more or less two dimensional. Businessman gave me an interesting journey to third dimension, and a very welcome opportunity to become acquainted with this oh so charming sculpture.