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At the top of the Fifth Street stairs on Starr Hill, near the corner of Fifth and Kennedy streets, there's a movable 18-foot-tall sculpture of three men, three women and a bear called "Living Together in Peace." The work is just 14 years old, but if you had walked past anytime before last week, you would have sworn it was much older.
No preservatives were applied when it was originally carved, out of yellow cedar, and the rain forest climate quickly took its toll. The wood cracked. Seeds worked their way into the cracks. Algae, lichens and mold covered the base and the figures. The wood was rotting, and the warm cedar was black.
Starr Hill resident Bob King has made it his summer project to clean up "Working Together," and last week, with the sunny weather, he was able to finish a lot of the work. After scrubbing, spraying Lysol, applying fungus-killing borates, water-repellent and wood preservative, the cedar looks like wood again.
"I've walked by this thing every day; it's our local piece of art," said King, a hill resident for 10 years. "Everybody up here knows it and likes it, and it was kind of sad seeing it get in worse and worse shape."
King's supplies, $200 worth, were paid for by the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, which has a small amount of money in its budget to help with emergency repairs to public art. Curator of collections Ellen Carrlee sent him the same treatment the museum used a few years ago to clean Amos Wallace's "Harnessing the Atom" totem pole.
The museum owns four totem poles and is required to take care of them. Other public art pieces around the city are taken care of by whoever owns them. For some works, jurisdiction is unclear.
"Some things fall between the cracks, and this sculpture had fallen between the cracks," Carrlee said.
The Living Together in Peace sculpture was dedicated on July 4, 1991. Former Starr Hill resident Judy Cooper designed the work and commissioned artist Judd Mullady to carve it.
Cooper lived at the corner of Fifth and Kennedy streets, across from where the sculpture stands, for 30 years. She also commissioned Arthur Higgins to build the steel-and-wood nun and chicken art at Chicken Yard Park. A Quaker, Cooper has been active in the peace movement for much of her life and also served in the Peace Corps in Bolivia. Born in 1939, she's also lived through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. "Living Together in Peace" was dedicated four months after the first U.S. combat forces began returning home from Operation Desert Storm.
"It was partly my reflection on the world and wishing that we could all be living in peace rather than the conflicts that were already happening," said Cooper, who now raises sled dogs in Fairbanks, her home for the last seven years. "I put the bear in at the last minute because of the trouble we were having with garbage bears. They always come through here on Starr Hill, because it's so close to the woods."
At the time, Mullady lived on South Franklin Street and was making various sculptures. He now lives in Haines and was unreachable for comment. Cooper had seen his work in wood and approached him with her design. He found a large yellow cedar stump near Ketchikan and brought it back to town in his pickup, Cooper said. He inverted it, using the flared-out bottom for the figurines. He used a chainsaw for the first rough cuts.
Cooper had to get permission from the Juneau Parks and Recreation department and the city maintenance department to install the sculpture. It sits near a city water line, and in fact, a small garden that used to rest under the sculpture was abandoned in the mid-1990s, when the city dug up the land around the line.
"Living Together" originally had a series of five-inch-long, inch-diameter dowels sticking out, so passersby could spin the sculpture. But all the dowels have broken off, perhaps for the better. They proved to be alluring for neighborhood kids, who would stand on them as the piece was rotated.
"I think a sculpture is more interesting if it moves, and you know, kids are kids," Cooper said. "It was too much of a liability. When they broke, we never replaced them."
Cooper considered applying preservatives to the wood before it was installed, but decided against it.
"I thought it would be nice to have it natural," Cooper said. "I thought it would look nice as it got older, but it hasn't aged that well."
That's no surprise.
"When you put a piece of wood in (Juneau's) environment, you're going to get some trouble," said Arthur Higgins, who made the base for "Living Together." Higgins also made the Chicken Yard Park sculptures and created 38 public art commissions in Alaska. "There's no preservative that you can use. There's no treatment you can use. It's just not going to last."
"Because we are in this rain forest climate, it's pretty tough on wood," Carrlee said. "Lichens and insects and biological growth and mildew really want to get going in wet wood that hasn't been pressure-treated."
After consulting with Carrlee, Cooper and Mullady, King started his work in the late spring. The first step was using Lysol and scrub brushes to clean off the blackish, green growth. The base was easy, but the figurines proved difficult. In some places, the arms had cracked, fallen off and been glued back together.
"The wood was so rotten that I didn't want to cause any harm," King said. "There were some areas where I would start to clean, and even with a light brushing the wood would start to peel off."
The second step was treating the wood with borates - a low-toxicity compound that doubles as an insecticide and fungicide.
King used Borocare but had to wait until last week's sunny weather. The wood needs to be dry for 48 hours before it's applied, and the compound needs four hours of sunshine to work into the wood. Then you add water repellent to keep the Borocare in place.
The final treatment was a wood preservative, TWP, a chemical agent to coat the wood.
"Hopefully this will stabilize it for the time being, but I'm really worried about some of the figurines here," King said.
Longtime Starr Hill resident Marguerite Fiorella lives on Kennedy Street, near the sculpture. She used to tend the garden and has done some repairs on "Living Together" over the years.
"All I've ever done was pull out the seeds that blew in and stuck in the cracks," Fiorella saids. "They had little plants growing off the main part, and I just pulled the weeds out of there."
"(King) has really done a good job," she said.
In Southeast Alaska's climate, yellow cedar sculptures like totem poles or "Living Together" should be treated every five years, Carrlee said.
King and Carrlee are also concerned about the sculptures at Chicken Yard Park. Many of the metal-and-wood chickens are worn, and several of the chickens have disappeared altogether. Higgins is interested in casting new chickens out of high quality metal but - as is often the case with public art - needs someone to fund the project.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.