Most Wonderful Time of the Year: II

CRUISING around Philadelphia’s City Hall at street level, you might not see him at first. Take a look up at the top, and there stands William Penn. The 37-foot, 27-ton bronze rendering of the Quaker who founded the Keystone State sits atop the Second Empire-style masonry tower. Now, imagine being up there with Penn, looking down and around the City of Brotherly Love.

That’s what Constance Bassett and David Cann do while cleaning and restoring the statue. The sculptors and conservators have been maintaining the historic landmark, using a custom wax mixed with pigment to match the original bronze.

In their Moorland Studio in Stockton, to be featured on the Covered Bridge Artisans Tour Nov. 26 to 28, Mr. Cann produces a photograph of Ms. Bassett, wearing bright yellow rubber coveralls, working on Pegasus, another historic sculpture. This one is at the newly relocated Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park, where the couple worked round the clock for two weeks to be ready for the opening. Pegasus needed to be cleaned and given a new patina and protective coating.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is another institution that counts on the metal work and restoration of Moorland Studio. New York City’s Trinity Church relied on their expertise in restoring an iron fence, and Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pa., will be getting new mounts for original Henry Mercer tile boxes.

Ms. Bassett and Mr. Cann, who are partners in matrimony as well as business, met at the Johnson Atelier in Hamilton. Mr. Cann started as an apprentice there in 1976, and went on to lead the metal chasing, welding and patina departments. He left in 1997 to spend more time with Moorland Studios, restoring the patina on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.    Ms. Bassett, who comes from a family of artists, studied art at the University of South Carolina, Parsons School of Design and the Arts Students League, and got the job on the Statue of Liberty because of her work in the patina department at the Atelier.

In 1987, Ms. Bassett and Mr. Cann bought this property in Stockton, with an 18th-century stone house up on the ridge, and built the studio to work on large projects.

“I grew up in an aesthetic environment,” says Ms. Bassett. “I gravitated to Dave because he’s a sculptor with a different aesthetic. He has more of a constructionist view. The elegance of how something is made is his source of inspiration.”

The business grew out of the couple’s mutual love for metal. “Dave’s ability to understand how something is made and my love of antiquity drew us to conservation work,” she continues. They are especially fond of heroic-sized Beaux Arts busts of Greek muses. “It’s an inspiration for our times,” says Ms. Bassett.

It is a crisp fall day, and the studio, surrounded by patinaed metal in interesting shapes, is heated with a wood stove. There is still a chill in the morning air, and Ms. Bassett, a native New Englander of British ancestry, says the cold is good for you – it toughens you up for the season. Nevertheless, she reappears with a tray of blue-and-white cups of steaming tea.

In addition to the on-site restoration work, the couple produces voluminous reports on the projects, replete with extensive photo documentation of the before and after. “The photo documentation helps us monitor the condition, so after 10 years you can see if the issue has been resolved,” says Mr. Cann. “It’s a history of our performance.” They keep track of new scientific technologies, making certain these methods do not compromise the historic structures they are preserving.

With an uncle who was a sculptor, her father a poet, her grandmother a painter, her brother a blacksmith, her sister working in watercolor, her son studying art in Italy and daughter applying to architectural and interior design schools, Ms. Bassett says she believes everyone has creativity. “It’s just a matter of whether it’s expressed. That’s why art resonates with people – because it’s in them.” For Ms. Bassett and Mr. Cann, finding each other at the Johnson Atelier helped them stay with art. It also helped them find three part-time assistants, who alternately work as commercial fishermen in New Hampshire, to help on big jobs.

Besides running Moorland Studios together, Ms. Bassett and Mr. Cann each pursue their own art, and Covered Bridge Artisans Tour is an opportunity for them to open the doors and show that work. “When you show something, you discover something you hadn’t recognized in the studio,” says Ms. Bassett, adding she is never finished because everything is always subject to reassessment. “As soon as you start to hang something, you hear the comments in your head, but you never hear those voices in the studio.”

While working on the Statue of Liberty, Ms. Bassett had a thought percolating in her mind: “The Statue of Liberty is such a wonderful icon of the muse, and I wanted to pursue it,” she says. In the studio is an enormous clay bust that evokes Lady Liberty’s head – Ms. Bassett plans to cast it in something indestructible. “It takes months or years to model a piece, then six months from the foundry process to the final casting. I had an idea that I should work on what I knew.”

From her personal experience in motherhood, she wanted to explore the mother-child theme. “And the muses fit nicely,” she says. “They’re an opportunity for something bigger.” She created a series of personal statements about being female in elongated bronze figures, depicting pregnancy, holding a baby and holding a dove. “But now I have said what I need to say, and so I’m moving on to a bigger agenda.”

Every summer, the family spends two weeks on Deer Isle in Maine, an opportunity to slow down and be quiet, catch up on reading. While Mr. Cann takes their children on boat trips or to museums or builds model airplanes, Ms. Bassett spends the time painting. Closer to home, she paints at the D&R Canal towpath or at the quarry on the Delaware River. “I don’t have to go very far,” she says. “You can see how amazing this area is.” Her landscapes do look familiar, but she paints them in a way that evokes the English countryside, or moorland.

Mr. Cann makes decorative and functional art: chandeliers, lamp bases, tables. He uses found objects, simultaneously maintaining their history and fabricating something new and sculptural. A console table has been designed like a puzzle and can be folded up and put in a closet.

Despite sometimes difficult and trying circumstances, the couple loves their work. At the Please Touch Museum, for example, when union contractors left in the rain, Ms. Bassett and Mr. Cann say they kept at it to make their deadline. In the midst of the crumbling economy, they were excited about a new uplifting museum for children.

“Public art is so exciting,” says Ms. Bassett. “No matter how bad a neighborhood, when the graffiti is cleaned off, there’s a force field around it. Good art lifts the spirit.”

“We like bigger jobs – they are exciting and challenging and slightly daunting,” the couple complete each other’s sentences. “We are intellectually challenged to find solutions that are not already available for conditions that could jeopardize artwork. We test our mettle on big projects.”

  • Covered Bridge Artisans Tour will take place at various locations in Stockton, Lambertville and Sergeantsville Nov. 26-28, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Stained glass artisans, potters, jewelers, fiber artists, painters and box makers will open their studios and show their work. (609) 397-1535; for map and directions.
This entry was posted in Central NJ Art, Ceramic Art, Craft cooperatives, Crafts, fiber art, Jewelry, landscapes, Philadelphia, Sculpture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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