The name may not be immediately familiar, but anyone who has spent time walking through the streets of Chicago, will likely recognize the distinctive figurative sculptures of Chicago artist John “Jack” Kearney (1924-2014). Kearney’s sculptures, like those in Oz Park, Chicago, capture a playfulness not always found with public artwork. Kearney trained at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and later at Universita per Stranieri in Perugia, Italy. He became interested in creating artwork using a unique yet common material: chrome automobile bumpers. When his interest sparked in the 1950s, these materials were plentiful, durable, and added an unexpected element to his whimsical animal sculptures.
The owner of the pictured Giraffe and Ram sculptures has loved Kearney’s work for many years. He was introduced to Jack Kearney by his father over 40 years ago, and is able to enjoy these two Kearney sculptures each day at his home. “[Kearney’s] work is whimsical and makes me smile.” Though, after many years of exposure to the harsh Chicago weather, he became concerned with the long-term preservation of the sculptures. He decided it was time for the Giraffe and Ram to visit The Conservation Center’s West Town laboratory.
Conservation of the Kearney sculptures was a welcome and interesting project for Assistant Conservator of Furniture, Andrew Rigsby. “The surfaces were in really bad shape with lots of chrome missing at the welded areas, mostly due to the migration of the rust (oxidation),” shares Andrew. The materials used in manufacturing the car bumpers were selected for their longevity as car parts, which directly helped the sculptures endure. Additionally, this feature also made conservation efforts more complicated due to the fact that “the welding process itself, reduced the integrity of the chrome coating,” describes Andrew. In order to treat these pieces efficiently, we needed to consult more effective ways to stabilize the iron oxidation. Through creating a chemical reaction, we were able to develop a new chemical treatment where the iron was converted to a more stable substance." The treatment was so effective that it was also used to treat oxidation that traveled under the lacquer layer remaining on the chrome from the manufacturing process. Otherwise, the original lacquer would have needed to have been removed to resolve the issues.
After a final cleaning, the sculptures were sprayed with automotive lacquer to help mitigate future oxidation. The lacquer is expected to be especially helpful in reducing oxidation of the welded areas, since they did not previously have any protective coating. Honoring the artist’s intent to have these sculptures be outdoors, while being vigilant with the ongoing preservation of the sculptures, will allow the owner to continue may years of enjoyment from these unique sculptures.