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Laumeier's flagship sculpture, a St. Louis landmark, gets $335,000 repair

"The Way," the Laumeier Sculpture Park's flagship piece, is photographed on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, at Laumeier Sculpture Park. The 50-year-old sculpture is rusting and degrading, as the park raises money for its repair.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
"The Way," an enormous 50-year-old sculpture at Laumeier Park in Sunset Hills, is degrading after four decades of exposure to the elements.

One of the most famous pieces of public art in the St. Louis region is getting a $335,000 makeover this fall.

Installed in 1980 at Sunset Hill’s Laumeier Sculpture Park, Alexander LIberman’s “The Way'' has become a symbol of the park and a St. Louis landmark. The 55-ton, 65-foot-tall sculpture comprises 18 huge steel oil drums, painted red and stacked and squished into an abstract five-story formation.

But after nearly a half-century of being exposed to weather, visitors and animals, the outdoor piece is in need of repair.

“This is our opportunity to talk about the conservation of all of the artworks,” Laumeier Curator Dana Turkovic said. “There are many, many pieces that are here, and they've been here for a long time. That's a commitment that we’ve made as a museum to these pieces."

The interior of two of the barrels has corroded, she said. The piece also needs a new coat of its signature paint, called “toreador red.” The new paint job will be more durable than coats used in the past and likely will last longer, she said.

Dirt and corroded paint is visible on “The Way," the Laumeier Sculpture Park's flagship piece, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, at Laumeier Sculpture Park. The 50-year-old sculpture is rusting and degrading, as the park raises money for its repair.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Dirt, rust, and chipping paint coats “The Way," Laumeier Sculpture Park's flagship piece, on Tuesday in Sunset Hills.

To restore the piece, curators worked with engineers, conservation experts and those who had been close with Liberman, who died in 1999. Workers used a tiny camera to look at the inside of the drums and scanners to measure the structural integrity of the steel.

“How do you figure that out, short of drilling holes and measuring it? Which isn't really something you want to be doing,” said Crosby Coughlin, an art dealer who worked with Liberman and has been assisting Laumeier with the restoration. “They ended up finding a sort of marine engineering company that measures the thickness of holes on barges on the Mississippi River.”

While inside, workers found decades-old beer cans, frisbees and other sporting equipment that had fallen inside over the past 45 years, Turkovic said.

The most important thing when it came to restorating “The Way” was keeping its sense of scale and sacredness intact, Coughlin said.

Liberman drew inspiration from European cathedrals and locations such as Stonehenge when he created it. Although the sculpture is made of industrial materials, its size makes some people compare it to an ancient temple. Others see a container ship or a tank.

“It's good to not get too wrapped up in little teeny details of [placing] the weld exactly in the same place or the surface texture of the material,” he said. “When you're coming up to it, it’s almost like you're coming up to an altar or a sacred space. … Those are the bigger things I would be really focusing on in terms of the overall restoration.”

The sculpture park has commissioned replacement metal tubes to be fitted inside the existing sculpture to replace the degraded metal. Turkovic expects the restoration to be finished by the end of the year.

Maintaining art is just as important as curating it, she said.

“Curators can forget about that aspect,” she said. “You're sort of lost the fun and intrigue of coming up with artworks and working with artists on pieces to have outside for the public to enjoy ... [but] I think conservation is the biggest point that we have to make. Because that is literally art meeting nature.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the cost of the sculpture's $335,000 repair.

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.