One morning last spring, I sat on the floor of a pickup truck steadying Athena's head. She was 7 foot 6 and light as a cat (well, maybe not my cat or yours), made of plaster gauze, papier maché, fiberglass resin and foam peanuts -- also floral wire, electrician's tape, real cat hair, wood and string, but no "sugar and spice and everything nice."
"She's a little rough in spots," I'd told College mover Bert Mayers, as he carefully wrapped her up in quilts for her ride to Thomas Great Hall. "Uh oh," he said solemnly. "I hear Athena's all about perfection. Will she be angry?" It's something I'd been worrying about, myself, for the last nine months.
After Bryn Mawr's plaster Athena was damaged last year (see story below), the Collections Committee puzzled over providing a stand-in to receive student votives. (The original now has too many stress fractures to survive more mishandling.) In a moment of pure enthusiasm, I said, "I bet I could make one out of papier maché." The Committee was interested, and I committed myself as a volunteer. I don't know what got into me -- perhaps a Bryn Mawr habit of leaping feet first into unknown depths and figuring things out on the way down. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done.
How to begin? I called my mother. I had worked in papier maché before, but thought a freehand copy would take too long. (That was wildly impossible anyway.) I had studied Greek sculpture and the particulars of our Athena. But I had to learn, again, that hands-on experience, not reading, is the bridge to technical mastery. My parents pulled me across. It was my mother's idea to make the initial shell in two halves to fit around a base. My father instructed me in the odorous work of fiberglassing and built the wooden armature. When my scheme to fill the body with expanding insulation foam resulted mostly in blobs congealed to my forelocks, they shopped for packing "peanuts." As we consulted back and forth, I felt a deepening sadness at the thought of how much I had never bothered to learn from them.
In July 1996, I covered the chipped plaster torso in brand-name plastic wrap -- it wouldn't stick! -- then tin foil -- and molded a thin layer of wet plaster gauze over the folds of the tunic. When dry, the front and back shells were lifted away, reinforced with fiberglass, and joined around the armature. More layers of plaster gauze, papier maché and paper clay were sanded and varnished.
Almost exactly a year after the abduction, we unveiled Athena II in Thomas Great Hall to a crowd of cheering students. That evening, shaking off the all-nighter, caffeine-crazed exhilaration of finishing the project, I came back alone to have another look. Her head, which I had attached at 2 a.m., was off center; her arm was lumpy; and she had spread broader in the beam while lying on the floor of my garage. But the figure lit up in the far corner of the darkened hall was getting along just fine in spite of me.
Students had painted her lips with red glitter glue and covered her with votives -- a stack of handmade wreaths on her head; petitions for good grades, sunny weather and general luck stuck about her body; burning incense and candles at her feet; more flowers in jars and bouquets, textbooks, candy, aspirin, and a "Hello Kitty" mirror compact.
I joked to anyone who would listen that I worried about being struck down, if not by Athena's spear, then the scorn of a certain professor who specializes in Greek sculpture. I did strive for perfection. I do plan to reset her head some day and smooth the arm, but the truth is that unevenness is a part of her charm - and a reality of my life.
Photo information: The two halves of Athena's torso were sandwiched around a wooden base and armature. The head was made separately, set over the central post and joined at the neck to the rest of the figure -- the weight of the body, filled with foam peanuts, is supported from the shoulders.
Bryn Mawr's Athena: a biographyAthena Lemnia came to the College circa 1906 from the M. Carey Thomas-Mary E. Garrett collection. Made by by a turn-of-the-century plaster cast maker in Cologne, Germany, she is a pastiche of two Roman marbles - the torso from the Dresden Museum and the head from Bologna's Museo Civico. Both are reflections of an original statue, possibly a bronze, which the sculptor Pheidias made in the mid-5th century B.C. for Athenians living on the island of Lemnos to dedicate on the Acropolis.
Kim J. Hartswick, M.A. '81, Ph.D. '84, argues that the Bologna marble head, in particular, is a Roman classicizing creation rather than a true copy.* The eyes, nose and mouth are more delicately shaped than mid-5th century Greek originals and are aligned symmetrically, not tilted. (Amusingly for Bryn Mawr, this head also was thought to be that of a young man or Amazon and changed to a feminine identification only after its association with the Athena body in the late 1800s.)
For most of her first 100 years at Bryn Mawr, Athena stood in Thomas Library. Painted black to represent bronze, she wears a short, scaly breastplate, or aegis, fringed with curled snakes and adorned with a gorgon's head. Her sandals are a heavy-soled Etruscan type -- "Even Athena wore Italian shoes!" remarked one scholar.
Abducted by aliensIn 1969-70, Athena was damaged in a May Day prank and taken to Arnecliffe Studio for rest and repairs.
In 1976, she was exhibited in the Penn Mutual Building at Philadelphia's Independence Square for its Bicentennial Exhibition.
It was after Athena's return to Thomas Great Hall in 1977-78 that students began to leave votives around her base as petitions for good luck on exams.
On April 21, 1996, she was chipped all over and her head and arm broken off during an abduction to Haverford College. A new cast could have cost at least $16,000, and after discussing various options, the College's Collections Committee decided to have the cast repaired by professional conservator Tamsen Fuller '72. This summer, the mended statue was installed in a niche high off the ground in the new Rhys Carpenter Library. (Penitent 'Fords helped fund the conservation costs.)
* American Journal of Archaeology 87 (1983), pp. 335-346
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