Like a kid on the first day of school, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is opening its fall semester with a fresh — albeit torn — notebook.
As part of regular maintenance, Nebraska’s “Torn Notebook” — the iconic, large-scale sculpture at 12th and Q streets that depicts a well-used notebook fluttering away in the wind — is being repainted to specifications outlined by its artists, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The project, which should be completed this week, includes a complete assessment of the sculpture’s condition, cleaning, sanding, and application of primer and specialized, artist-approved paint.
“Over the years, everything from birds to people to Nebraska’s ever-changing weather take their toll on our outdoor sculptures,” said Genevieve Ellerbee, associate registrar at Sheldon Museum of Art. “Structurally, ‘Torn Notebook’ is in great shape. This is just a sprucing up, to return faded paint to the artists’ intended color and have the sculpture looking pristine again.”
“Torn Notebook” is one of about 35 campus sculptures that are part of Sheldon’s collection and on display across the university’s City and East campuses. As the artworks are ambassadors of both the university and museum, Sheldon employees conduct weekly assessments of the sculptures, looking for damage or potential problems.
“We take regular, long looks at every single sculpture on campus,” Ellerbee said. “We want to be sure that nothing has been changed or there isn’t anything to be concerned about. That includes a variety of things, from vandalism to squirrels trying to build a nest within a sculpture.”
Museum employees use the condition reports to track all changes in the sculptures over time and plan future renovations and cleanings.
Among the recently renovated/cleaned sculptures is Sam Richardson’s “Variable Wedge,” located on the north side of Westbrook Music Building. The project included the removal of rust from the metal structure.
“That renovation was more intense than ‘Torn Notebook’ as there were some rust issues,” Ellerbee said. “The work took ‘Variable Wedge’ down to the bare metal, making sure all the rust was removed before being repainted.”
Omaha’s Jensen Conservation Services, which has worked on Sheldon sculptures for at least 20 years, led renovations on both “Variable Wedge” and “Torn Notebook.” On average, the new paint jobs will last for about 10 years.
“Torn Notebook” was last updated in 2007, a project that was more intensive than the current repaint. The 2007 renovation took five weeks and included the repair of cracks and creation of weep holes in the sculpture’s spiral. Read more about the 2007 update.
For each outdoor sculpture, Sheldon keeps exacting records on the materials used in the compositions. Recorded details for the painted sculptures include color samples/chips and information about the chemical breakdown of each paint/compound applied to the structure.
“The reports are given to the conservators so they are able to make certain all the right things are being done to preserve and protect the sculptures,” Ellerbee said. “For ‘Torn Notebook,’ that meant even looking at samples of the silver paint under a microscope to confirm methods used to give it that glossy, spring-like metal look.”
The in-depth records help Sheldon maintain each artwork to the exacting standards of the original artists for generations of Nebraskans and campus visitors to come.
“While painting ‘Torn Notebook’ red and emblazoning it with a Nebraska ‘N’ would be fun, it would be outside the boundaries of the ethical codes of the museum,” Ellerbee said. “We do our best to preserve the artistic spirit of each piece through these rehabilitations, matching colors and methods of application or protection as close as is possible.”