Art Restoration at the US Consulate in Istanbul

Art Restoration of Sculptures by Maya Lin


Art Restoration in Istanbul
‘Analemmatic Sundial’ by Maya Lin

It took three trips to our Consulate in Istanbul over 2 years (2013 and ’14) to complete the art restoration of 2 large sculptures by Maya Lin, famous for creating the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.

All went better than imagined, and I owe it all to a brilliant maintenance staff who just wouldn’t give up on the multitude of challenges and ‘hidden conditions,’​ and to Jim Wenzel from the State Dept who’s that rare administrator who loves to get his hands dirty, and to my employer Jenn Duncan, Director of FAPE (Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies), who always had positive things to say!

The sculptures are now in excellent condition after nearly 12 years in disrepair. Most importantly, the staff know all the ‘secrets’ for keeping these works running well without the further expense of my services.

A Little History

Maya Lin created these sculptures for our consulate in Istanbul in 2003. These works were commissioned by FAPE.

She recently lectured at Smith College where I had the pleasure of introducing myself and telling her about the repairs – a nice brief chat and a truly impressive individual.

FAPE is a non-profit organization that raises funds – so that no taxpayer dollars are involved – to commission permanent works of American art for our embassies and consulates worldwide. For 30 years, FAPE has contributed to the U.S. Department of State’s mission of cultural diplomacy by partnering with American artists whose works encourage cross-cultural understanding.

Behind the Scenes

art restoration by Arts Management Services

It wasn’t a routine art restoration!

Sometimes fixing a work of art is little more than a careful brush stroke. Not this time. Over 15 tons of granite was lifted, cleaned, repaired and put back together without anything breaking or anyone getting hurt!

And it wasn’t just any artwork! It’s an important piece by an important artist. These are two early works by Maya Lin in which large and quiet pools of water first appear to become central elements in her subsequent sculpture.

I’d seen many of her other wonderful pieces. These were special!

Strange Karma!

Here’s the weird thing.

First, Maya Lin once stayed with my good friend, the artist Michael Singer, very early on when she was still a young architecture student at Yale. She had just won the design competition for the Vietnam Memorial. This astonishing award would catapult her to worldwide fame. Michael provided her a last and final brief moment of anonymity.

As if that weren’t serendipitous enough, another close friend knew her, too! His brother had dated Maya in college.

So I felt strangely chosen to resurrect these damaged and lost things of great beauty.

Unusual Challenges

Art Restoration of Maya Lin Sculpture

There were leaks, but no one knew where exactly despite years of study. And no one would ever know until someone took the whole thing apart! Even Jenn’s optimism and our track record of success with other challenging projects wasn’t giving me much confidence.

I love challenges but this was over the top. Would a long career of successes come to a crashing halt!

Both sculptures had been in disrepair since shortly after their completion over a decade ago. FAPE commissioned the artist and the State Dept hired the contractor, a contractor who cut corners! And so it leaked from the very beginning, leaked too much to ‘turn on’ except for very special and infrequent occasions.

I could rail about the madness of greed that just can’t spend $100 to finish a job properly even after being wildly overpaid! And I’d be right. But the truth was that I wouldn’t be visiting this marvelous city, wouldn’t meet and work with these wonderful people, and wouldn’t have yet another thrilling project, had it not been for this corrupt contractor! Life is strange. Life is good.

The Pieces

These 2 sculptures are large outdoor art works made of the beautiful granite native to Turkey and inspired by the sundial, a history-changing invention which has been traced back to Turkey’s ancestors.

One huge fountain greets employees and visitors as they enter the consulate. The other calms and enchants employees in an inner courtyard. Both had languished for years rarely ever filled with water or lit with their impressive array of lights except when the Secretary of State visited or on a Fourth of July celebration.

I make a living off of sculptures that involve water. Nature filters water naturally, but not sculptures. They need help. Pumps and filters prevent the buildup of debris and algae, but they must be cared for regularly or they break down. Electricity must be completely coated with special waterproof material or bad things happen. And what holds the water must be specially coated or it leaks. Even with the best care, coatings and pumps get old and die. Sculptures have lives.

And there is a secret about fountains – one must never seek perfection. There will always be a leak somewhere, and one must not waste time and money curing the smallest leaks. But no leak should be so great as to be wasteful. So the restoration of a fountain is a delicate matter: like a Persian rug, you must leave a tiny flaw, for only Allah is perfect.

Four Miracles!

Art Repair in Istanbul
‘Equatorial Sundial’ by Maya Lin

We’d done lots of tests and calculations and had a strong idea where the leak was located but no one had actually seen it. Then came the miracles!

The first one appeared as a wild engineer out of nowhere! Jim Wenzel from the State Dept. He’s in charge of preserving all the antiques and works of art throughout our government, from priceless paintings in the White House to antique furniture in distant embassies. With 294 US embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions across the world, there is a vast collection of valuable antiques, works of art, gifts and historic architecture to care for. His department and FAPE work in partnership to preserve these assets.

This guy’s supposed to be shuffling paper behind some desk. Instead here he is lending a hand even with the dirtiest job, even in the rain, and with engineering know-how that turned out to be critical to the success of the job – he figured out where the leaks were!

The second miracle was a quiet plumber named Demir. He was fluent in English. I knew no Turkish. He tried to teach me a few words each day but I was hopeless. I needed numerous materials too dangerous or heavy or weird to ship from the States. He’d take off and soon be back with exactly what I needed or better, and do it cheerfully many times a day so that my work remained focused and uninterrupted!

The 3rd miracle was Taric, a young guy forced to escort me all the time. All visitors to our foreign missions no matter what their purpose must be escorted for security reasons, even to the bathroom. I was worried. I needed another special person like Demir, but this time someone very experienced to operate a crane. You see, no one understood what was really going on here – no one seemed to realize the real danger involved in moving huge pieces of rock that could kill someone if not handled properly.

Turns out Tamir was some kind of angel sent to protect us all! He was a master at interpreting my frantic hand gestures, my fearful expressions, and my every infidel prayer, as he manned the controls of the crane better than I ever hoped for, delicately lifting huge slabs without even once making a mistake that risked severing straps and dropping the load to shatter or worse! Not one of over 30 huge pieces ever received so much as a scratch!

Then appears Serkan, the electrician! Not just any electrician. Years ago when the sculpture was built, custom lights were made out of a new technology at the time called LED. It was an expensive choice costing hundreds of dollars for each light fixture, and there were dozens of lights. But it was a wise choice at the time because LED lights use very little electricity and last a long time.

But 12 years later many lights no longer worked, and the original manufacturer was not in business. I knew that somehow we could improvise and find a solution, but I needed an electrician who thinks outside the box, someone who could somehow fit new LEDs into old irreplaceable custom fixtures. He did it, creating new fixtures at $6 each instead of $500!

And so we are all well and 2 sculptures are like new! Thanks to my new friends, Jim Wenzel, Demir Kurt, Tarik Albayrak and Serkan Duran. Sezer Yucel and Rasim Ozdemir relieved my aging shoulders of some of the worst work! Their boss, Facilities Maintenance Supervisor Mustafa Unal, a better administrator I’ve never met!

Another challenging art restoration accomplished.