Waterfront Park Bird Sculptures Fly Away for Restoration

Waterfront Park will be missing some of its more colorful residents this summer. “Flock of Finns,” a collection of painted metal bird sculptures based on Louisville artist Marvin Finn’s original designs, are headed to Ohio for restoration. 

The “Flock of Finns” settled permanently on Waterfront Park in 2001. The elements and a hands-on public have taken their toll on the brightly-painted metal sculptures, and now several have, among other ailments, rust blisters that will deteriorate the structural integrity of the pieces if not remedied.  

“Sunlight will fade them. They’re near the river, so humid conditions will affect the paint. Even particulates in the air can affect the paint. Wear and tear of people loving them a little too much, climbing on them, that can affect the appearance of the paint,” says Louisville Metro public art administrator Sarah Lindgren. 

Good news for the sculptures – despite their easily-accessible placement on Waterfront Park at the corner of Preston and Witherspoon Streets, vandalism hasn’t been a big concern. Lindgren says she spotted a sticker or two, but no graffiti. 

I think they’re more exciting for photo opps, and I hope that will continue in the future when they have their new paint job,” she says.

When they arrive at McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio, they’ll be photographed, stripped down and repainted with state-of-the-art zinc primer and paint – the kind used on military ships and Disney World attractions – that can hold its own against the elements and crowds.

“The technology for the materials has drastically changed in the 15 years since they were created,” says Lindgren. “The conservator who’s treating them specializes in industrial coatings and paint for sculptures that are placed outdoors. It’ll be the same kind of materials they’d use for a naval ship.” 

Lindgren says the city’s commission on public art, or COPA, is still in the process of inventorying the city’s collection, but eventually wants a full conservation assessment to create a maintenance plan for all public art pieces. This particular project costs about $32,000, to be split between city maintenance funds donated at the time of the flock’s installation and held in reserve by the Community Foundation of Louisville, and Waterfront Development Corporation.

“So we’re sharing it, in a public-private partnership model that will be probably the way COPA will fund a lot of projects going forward,” says Lindgren.

Kristin Gilbert, the collection management consultant for Louisville Metro’s public art collection, says this is a good example of why it’s important to build in a maintenance plan and budget when public art is initially installed.

“It’s the nature of public art. Public art is in the public realm and it gets a lot of wear and tear,” says Gilbert. “If you’re going to have them out there where people can enjoy them, you’re going to need to take care of them along the way.”

The large sculptures were based on Finn’s smaller wooden bird sculptures, enlarged and fabricated in steel and painted by artist Melissa Wilson in the style of Finn’s originals. The conservators have color-matched the paints to photographs of the original designs, so the birds will look as bright and fresh as when they were first installed. Gilbert says the integrity of Finn’s designs will remain, even through a thorough stripping.

“It’s like the Andy Warhol model, where the idea exists and then it’s implemented by others,” she says. “Essentially, it’s a fabrication. That’s what makes it possible. We’re not destroying the paint put on by Marvin Finn himself.” 

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