In Kristin Cheronis’s northeast Minneapolis lab, the director of a St. Paul museum is admiring the smooth backside of a Native American hunter. “That area was really grimy,” Cheronis points out with a shrug. Luckily, the hunter—a bronze figure made by famed sculptor Paul Manship—cleaned up nicely, thanks to Cheronis.
Cheronis is a conservator specializing in sculptures, meaning she’s part chemist, part art detective, part savior. Atop her antique file cabinets (containing gloves, goggles, and something called an optivisor), sits a corroded sculpture of Hubert H. Humphrey, from the Weisman Art Museum. On a table rests a broken-down kinetic light sculpture from the 1960s, sent over by Sotheby’s. In a box lie the ivory shards of a small sculpture from a private collector. Things fall apart; almost always, Cheronis can put them back together.
Summers are busy: Cheronis maintains the public art of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other cities, driving her pickup truck, with its bumper sticker that says “Start Seeing Sculpture,” around the state. A lot of people, it seems, don’t see sculptures. “People drive into them all the time,” says Cheronis. She’s also cleaned vomit off Mary Tyler Moore, paintball splats off statues in Duluth’s Canal Park, and dog pee off just about everything. She’s even repaired bullet holes in a fountain sculpture in St. Paul.
The work has given her an unusual insight into human behavior. “The most common question I’m asked when I’m working on public art is, ‘Did you just put this up? ’ ” Cheronis says. “People walk past things without noticing.” Many people stop to offer their opinion of pieces—or yell it from cars. The Botero sculpture of full-figured nude dancers near The Depot in Minneapolis attracts particular interest. “I once had a long discussion with a city worker about whether the piece was obscene or not,” Cheronis says. “Public art is like a Rorschach test.”
Cheronis runs a gloved hand across the hunter. Seeing damaged art, she says, is “like hearing the Gettysburg Address but only catching a third of the words. When I restore an artwork, it can communicate so much better.”
5 Things You Didn’t Know About Kristin
1. She worked for 15 years at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before going solo in 2001.
2. A favorite project was cleaning a Modigliani at the MIA to reveal fossils in the stone.
3. She’s an artist herself, creating intaglio etchings at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking.
4. She’s a fan of early natural history, when science was as much imagination as fact.
5. She can tell a cirrus cloud from a cumulus, and recently joined a cloud-watching club.