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'The Family' as good as new

Refresh put lustre back in central work in Guelph's public art collection

Anna Bullock is learning art restoration and conservation from a master.

Bullock, 21, an assistant/intern working along side Alexander Gabov on the refurbish of “The Family” sculpture in St. George’s Square, was putting some of the final touches on the work Thursday in the sun-drenched square.

The temperature was hot, and the work was hot. Bullock was applying a special wax in areas of the iconic sculpture with a paint brush on a long handle, and Gabov was melting it into the bronze figures with a propane torch.

Gabov, owner of Conservation of Sculptures, Monuments and Objects, is well-known across Canada for his fine work on public art. He started cleaning, refurbishing and rejuvenated “The Family” on Monday. The work was nearing completion Thursday, and the William McElcheran statue, symbolic of the universal family, was looking as good as new with its fresh coat of patina.

The city invested about $14,000 in work that included a refresh on the sculpture and some needed work on the fountain. The effort will prolong the life of a statue that has become emblematic of downtown Guelph, though somewhat controversial over the years for its nudity and style.

Bullock has been working with Gabov since last October, and has travelled to many communities and worked on a number of public works of art. She hopes to study art conservation at Queens University, where Gabov once taught.

“It’s always fun to the see the final product,” Bullock said. “It’s satisfying to see something I've worked on looking really good again.

Gabov said Bullock is a fine visual artist herself, and has a fine touch with the restoration work. He added that he was an artist “in a previous life,” and restoring public works of art is a way of getting to know the work of other artists.

“I get to put myself in their shoes, and kind of reverse engineer the piece,” he said, adding that every bronze sculpture is different, with its own characteristics, properties and needs. Every job is a custom job.

“The Family” was unveiled in 1985. The frog element that accompanies it was installed in 1987, a gift of the artist. It, too, was refurbished.

Gabov said the sculpture is definitely a central piece of art in Guelph, and one that continues to generate a lot of comments. Some are fun and humorous, others not so much, he said.

“It is definitely a conversation piece,” he said.