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International crew restores Chihuly's 'DNA Tower' to original, shiny glory

June 5, 2014

Each day, arching spirals of blue, violet and gold float above the heads of the hundreds of people who pass through the sky lit hall beneath the atrium of the VanNuys Medical Science Building at the IU School of Medicine.

"DNA Tower," the enormous work of art by artist Dale Chihuly, has become a part of daily life for most IUSM faculty, staff and students. But it’s only been 10 years since an anonymous donor brought the 20-foot-tall, 3,000-pound tower of 1,200 hand-blown glass elements to the IU School of Medicine. On June 2 and 3, the sculpture received its first professional cleaning from the only group in the world certified to perform the task.

"Campus Facility Services does occasionally clean the statue, but they don't have the knowledge to pull it apart like this -- this is the first time it's been treated by someone who can get into the middle and really make adjustments," said Kathryn Chattin, assistant curator of campus art in the Department of Campus Art in the Office of Insurance, Loss, Control and Claims.

Chattin learned about Denny Park Fine Arts, the company that performed the cleaning, from their monthly visits to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, where they regularly clean "Fireworks of Glass" by Chihuly. The Seattle-based group, which has offices on the East and West Coasts, travels the world to maintain works by Chihuly, including the ceiling at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and the Atlantis Casino and Resort in Dubai.

As the group that maintains all public art across the eight campuses of IU -- about 20,000 individual pieces of art in total -- the Department of Campus Art is responsible for everything from "DNA Tower" to the personal art collection of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, both IU faculty members who recently left their estate to the university. One of the largest works in the university's vast collection, "DNA Tower" was erected in 2003 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the IU School of Medicine and the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James D. Watson, who earned a Ph.D. from IU in 1950.

"This piece was very unique in that Dale typically does not do anything that’s literal, and creating a representation of DNA involved the literal translation of the DNA (shape) into glass," said Lisa Leach, a project manager at Denny Park Fine Arts and former employee of Chihuly Studio who participated in the sculpture's original installation over a decade ago. "There were several options presented at the time and everyone agreed the one selected was the most beautiful."

The work required two weeks to blow the glass and one week to install, she said. The installation process, which filled the entire corridor of the atrium and required a 24/7 security guard to watch the glass, involved carefully wiring each piece to the steel armature, which provides the artwork shape.

"When you install you start at the bottom and work your way up," Leach said. "When you de-install it, you start at the top and work your way down because of the compression of the weight. It’s nearly impossible to take a piece out in the middle."

Regan O'Reilly and Sean Leen, the individuals who recently undertook the cleaning process, are among the few people certified by the Chihuly Studio to loosen those wires. But their primary job involved the meticulous polishing of each individual globe, including a repeat of the whole process after their first pass in order to guarantee maximum shine. They used a special glass cleaner and cloth baby diapers to accomplish the task -- all while perched atop a 20-foot tall industrial scissor lift.

"It was dirty -- that was the challenging part for this piece -- it was exceptionally dirty," said O'Reilly. "Trying to get into those spaces that have heavier dirt can be challenging. If you look at the piece before and after the cleaning, it's much brighter now."

Out of the hundreds of works he's helped maintain over the years, O'Reilly said "DNA Tower" is among his favorites. "It's a really beautiful, unique piece," he said.

After their jobs in Indianapolis, O'Reilly's crew will depart for Houston and Tallahassee, Fla. Later this month, they're headed out to California to join a second, West Coast-based crew from Denny Park Fine Arts for a large project in the area. In addition to professional cleanings, the company assists with "de-installations" and transportation of the delicate glassworks.

"It’s surprising how much sparkle there is in the glass," Leach said. "It’s not unique to IU that the sculpture hasn't been cleaned for so long; it’s just that you get used to seeing it every day. It's an honor to help bring back its brightness and its brilliance."

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