Old Abe, “Yankee Buzzard,” all fixed up

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 » By lstone » See more posts from Happening Now at the RBSC, STAFF PICS

Describing some rooms and areas of the RBSC by conventional room functions doesn’t always make sense. Such is the case with “the living room” and “the dining room,” identified as such due to the dining table in the former and the sofa in the latter, both of which are so covered with objects, that eating a meal or relaxing are no longer the point.

On the north wall in between what we might call the dining and living rooms hangs the curious painted object, Old Abe. It’s one of the oddest examples of paint on velvet that we’ve ever encountered; leave it to Roger to find the unusual example of whatever.

Old Abe unframed with conditions noted by Tim Fox.

We call it a painting, but rather than being painted, per se, the image is constructed. The artist (as yet and most likely forever unidentified) created an eagle with talons gripping the branch upon which it’s perched, with carefully applied, thick, V-shaped globs of paint. The branch, tail, and title are edged in glitter, mixed with or applied on the textured paint. It’s installed near the ceiling so under normal circumstances it’s hard to get near enough to see the peculiar surface.

Old Abe original wood backing

Here’s a bit about Old Abe, excerpted straight out of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Abe):

Old Abe (c.1861 – March 28, 1881), a female bald eagle, was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and is the screaming eagle mascot depicted on the insignia of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

Old Abe was captured in 1861 by near the Chippewa River by Ahgamahwegezhig (Chief Big Sky) near the town of Jim Falls, in Chippewa County, Wisconsin. She was subsequently traded to local farmer, Daniel McCann, for a bushel of corn, who in turn sold her to the 8th Wisconsin’s Company C for $2.50.

Company C named the eagle after President Abraham Lincoln, and designed a special perch on which they carried the bird into battle. Old Abe participated in the Second Battle of Corinth (in which the 8th Wisconsin lost half of its men) and the Siege of Vicksburg, among other battles. In battle, Old Abe quickly became legendary, screaming and spreading her wings at the enemy. Confederate troops called her the “Yankee Buzzard” and made several attempts to capture her but never succeeded. Several times she lost feathers to bullets and saw her handlers get shot out from under her. When passing by, Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and William Rosecrans were known to doff their hats to the eagle.

The State Historical Society of Wisconsin’s website refers to Old Abe as a male bird, and notes:

At the end of the war Old Abe was presented to the State of Wisconsin. For fifteen years he lived in the “Eagle department” in the basement of the Capitol building, attracting thousands of visitors. During this period Old Abe also served as the star attraction of many fundraising events, earning politicians and charities thousands of dollars.

Old Abe’s long life ended March 26, 1881 when he died from smoke inhalation during a fire near his home in the Capitol. His remains were mounted and for the next 20 years his body remained on display in the rotunda of the Capitol building. After construction of the new State Historical Society building in 1901, Old Abe was briefly housed at that facility before being moved back to the Capitol in 1903 by order of Governor LaFollette. Sadly, Old Abe’s remains were destroyed when the Capitol building burned down on February 26, 1904.

Our grand bird-on-velvet had seen better days as well. The velvet, mounted directly on a rough wood backing, was slumping in its mount, and the paint was pressed against the glass. In early January, objects technician Tim Fox took the painting out of the frame, cleaned the velvet and paint, reinforced the fabric’s edges and mounted it on a new support composed of acid-free 4-ply museum board laminated to a thin panel of high-quality sealed plywood. Tim added a spacer between the painting and the glass, using wood he salvaged from WPA mural stretchers from Lane Tech High School.

New backing for Old Abe

These steps returning it to a much closer approximation of its original appearance, while also minimizing the inherent affects/speed of ageing going forward.  Conserved and re-housed, Old Abe is refreshed and enigmatic as ever.

Old Abe restored and reinstalled

-Lisa Stone

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