Venus Bronze Works Restores Detroit, One Sculpture at a Time

Few people are blessed to go to work each day under the beneficent eye of Victory and Progress, but Giorgio Gikas, owner of the Detroit-based sculptural restoration firm Venus Bronze Works Inc., has had this good fortune for well over a year. As he moves about his hangar-sized workshop on the city's East Side, navigating massive planes of steel and benches strewn with the shiny viscera of disassembled works of art, the buxom duo loom over him like graceful muses.

Alas, the two beauties are not deities, descended from Mount Olympus in Gikas' homeland of Greece to occupy his workshop and garner him endless commissions. They are 15-foot copper sculptures brought down from a much lower height atop the Wayne County Building in downtown Detroit, where they have sat upon their horse-drawn chariots since J. Massey Rhind sculpted them for the building in 1903. Gikas and his team of assistants have been tasked with restoring the quadriga, as this type of sculptural grouping is known, by replacing the armatures that support their copper exteriors. It's a challenging task that requires removing delicate outer panels and inserting stainless steel supports, but for Gikas and his crew it's old hat.

One of the top sculptural restoration firms in the country, Venus Bronze was started by Gikas in 1984 and has operated since 1987 out of the same 7,500-square-foot warehouse. Aided by a half-dozen art school graduates (as well as daughters Nikki and Maria), Gikas tackles commissions from both the private and public sectors, handling works by an imposing roster of artists that includes Rodin, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Marshall Fredericks.

Gikas, whose father, grandfather and uncle were master metalworkers, learned his trade through a literal trial by fire, spending countless hours during his youth in the artists' foundry run by his family in Athens, Greece. He brought his skills to the U.S. in the 1970s, working first for an uncle in Cincinnati, then moving between Detroit, Port Huron, and New York. While in the Big Apple he worked as a patineur, or "finisher," for Roman Bronze Works, one of the country's oldest and most renowned art and sculpture casting foundries. While there, he worked on pieces by Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Frederic Remington, and other titans of the city's art scene.

Gikas got his big break in Detroit due to a patrimonial misadventure in the heart of the city. As Gikas recalls, a construction company hired to spruce up Grand Circus Park turned its sandblasters on three venerated statues in an effort to clean them. When the dust had cleared, the once lustrous pieces were badly pitted and the city's art community was up in arms. Friends told Gikas about the uproar in Detroit, and he quickly flew in, wrangled an appointment with the city's chief landscape architect, and persuaded the official to let him restore the pieces. The three works — the Russell Alexander Alger Memorial Fountain and statues of Detroit Mayors William Cotter Maybury and Hazen Pingree — remain foci of the five-acre park.

Since then, Gikas has enjoyed steady business in the city. His work could be seen routinely during the administrations of Mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer, both of whom budgeted for the restoration of one or two pieces of public sculpture annually. He has also become a fixture on Detroit's arts scene, with seats on the boards of the Detroit Artists Market, the Michigan Legacy Art Park, the Michigan Alliance for Conservation for Cultural Heritage, and the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project's "Artworks For Life" project.

The city's harsh winter climate and industry-generated acid rain are the biggest threats to outdoor sculpture in Detroit, says Gikas, adding that vandalism is rare here despite the city's reputation for crime. (A notable exception was in 2004, when vandals threw white paint on the city's tribute to longtime Detroit resident Joe Louis. It was Venus Bronze that removed the paint from Robert Graham's giant bronze fist sculpture.)

Restoring giants, city spirit

Gikas is currently at work on a giant, abstract arch that David Heberling sculpted in 1976 from COR-TEN steel, which Gikas says was rashly dubbed a miracle material in the 1950s and 60s. The rust-like layer that develops on its exterior over time was expected to provide a protective layer but in fact led to corrosion, he said. The firm is cutting sections of the steel out and replacing them with new pieces developed from custom-made templates. The work will return to its location near Zingerman's Delicatessen on Detroit Street in Ann Arbor.

Gikas is also restoring a 1970 Alexander Calder, "Jeune Fille et Sa Suite," which has been donated to the Detroit Institute of Arts by AT&T. The 35-foot sculpture, which will be moved from the corner of Michigan and Cass to the corner of Farnsworth and John R this spring, is being returned to its original black from the bright "Calder red" the public is accustomed to.

Gikas' next big project is Marshall Fredericks' Spirit of Detroit, which is located outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center near Hart Plaza and is arguably the most prominent sculpture in Southeast Michigan. The sculpture is being restored for a Sept. 23 re-dedication ceremony celebrating its 50th birthday.

The Detroit Wayne Joint Building Authority, which owns and operates the Coleman Young Building, picked Venus Bronze after soliciting bids from a number of restoration firms. The group was drawn to Gikas' firm because of his considerable experience with Fredericks' work, says General Manager Gregory McDuffee (Gikas has restored a number of the artist's pieces, most recently the "Harlequins" on the wall of the Ford Auditorium).

With a height of 16 feet, an armspan of 22 feet, and a weight of nine tons, the Spirit of Detroit is the largest cast bronze statue created anywhere in the world since the Renaissance. Working on-site, Venus Bronze will fill small holes in the statue, clean its surface with a hard spray of walnut shells, seal it, and apply a patina. The Detroit-based construction firm Chezcorp, Inc. will clean the statue's white base and the wall that towers behind it.

As the general contractor for the current renovation of the Wayne County Building, Chezcorp was the firm that selected Venus Bronze to repair Rhind's copper quadriga. Chezcorp President and Founder David Cieszkowski says there's no one else he would have brought on board.

"The United States is not like Europe, where there are still a lot of artisans," notes Cieszkowski. "Here they are few and far between, so it's incredibly important to find someone like Giorgio who knows the history of artists, the materials they used, who their craftsmen were, and what their lifestyles were. It makes a big difference when you're restoring things.

"We've never found anyone better than Giorgio. A project can't be successful without him."

Venus Bronze Works is at 13401 Mount Elliott. Call (313) 891-5151 or e-mail [email protected] for more information.

Lucy Ament is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Model D and metromode.


Tools of the trade

J. Massey Rhind's "Victory In Progress" sculptures tower over Venus Bronze Work employees.

Giorgio Gikas, owner of the Detroit-based sculptural restoration firm Venus Bronze Works Inc.

Gikas poses next to David Heberling giant abstract arch sculpter

Sparks fly while Gikas is hard at work

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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