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Archive for Sunday, September 29, 1996

GROTESQUES ARE ANYTHING BUT HIDEOUS

September 29, 1996

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A Lawrence sculptor is bringing some strange creatures back to life at Kansas University.

John Swift is leaving his mark in the wildest of kingdoms.

"This one has the snout of a cow, the skull of a cat, human breasts," Swift says about the creature at his right elbow. "On this side, it has split hooves on its back foot and on this side it has toes."

To Swift, a Lawrence stone carver who is restoring grotesques at Kansas University's Dyche Hall, the creature isn't a monster but a masterpiece.

The gargoyle-like grotesques, cut from Kansas limestone, have graced the imposing building since Dyche opened in 1903. There used to be 12 on the walls, but four were removed in 1963 to make way for an addition.

"Each one is a fanciful combination of animals both real and imagined," Swift said. "Very strange."

And very endangered. Over the years, natural acids in rainwater have created pits and cracks in the stone and dulled some of the carvings' features.

Friday morning, Swift used a diamond-tipped, hand-held grinder and a rasp to shape a new ear for the 400-pound cow-cat-human carving that once was perched on Dyche's north wall.

Working with stone that has become extremely brittle through years of weathering, Swift shaved the surface with short, careful strokes.

"It's very exacting, painstaking work that requires a high level of concentration," he said. "Sometimes, it's pretty tedious."

Thomas Swearingen, director of the Natural History Museum, said Swift's work was part of a larger project to renovate the building for its 100th birthday in 2001. The cornerstone for the building, which opened in 1903 and houses the museum, was laid in 1901.

Original renovation plans, which are subject to revision by historical and architecture committees, called for the grotesques being refurbished by Swift to be placed on a recent addition.

Swift is working on three of the four carvings removed for the 1963 addition. The other was stolen after being shipped to West Campus for storage.

The carvings were extremely sophisticated for their era, said Swift, who has done restoration work at the state capitol and also creates bronze sculptures.

"They did this building first-class all the way," he said. "In its day, it had to be the most impressive building in the state."

The hall is named for Lewis Lindsay Dyche, a naturalist and former KU professor who gained national fame by lecturing about his travels throughout North America and the Arctic Circle.

Swift said he believed grotesques were added to the limestone building to accentuate its gothic design. The carvings technically are not gargoyles, he said, because gargoyles contain spouts to channel water away from buildings.

As he worked his dust-covered hands across the carving on Friday, Swift marveled at the creativity that went into the design. Behind him was a grotesque that appeared to be part sheep and part lion, with a Kansas penant hanging down its front.

"You see a lot of features that look to be the result of a whim," he said. "It's an honor and it's really exciting to be asked to do this."

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