Tuesday, December 7, 2021

What in the World is a Feline Facelift?

Rumination from the Rock and Beyond

Photos by Jory Westberry

The “naked” Key Marco Cat statue.

You’ve no doubt heard of the Key Marco Cat, the 6-inch wooden statue discovered on Marco Island in 1896, that is presently on loan to the Marco Island Historical Museum from the Smithsonian Institution Department of AnthropologyIf you haven’t yet toured the museum to see the Cat, and many more artifacts unearthed during the Pepper-Hearst Expedition, this is a perfect time to visit. With social distancing, there are few delays and fewer visitors, so you can browse at your leisure, which will calm your inner craving for knowledge. In fact, this is a superb opportunity to tour again since you can take your time and visit the displays you missed the last time. 

The exhibits are professionally created and contain artifacts of significant value. As you stroll, you’ll learn all about the history of Marco Island from the early native Muspa residents up through Marco’s recent past. There are interactive sections that will amuse and engage your family and friends, no matter their ages, and it’s the perfect place to be on a rainy afternoon. 

The original Key Marco Cat figure, part human, part felineis incredibly valuableWhy? Because it’s been estimated at between an amazing 500 – 1600 AD years old. Along with many other artifacts of various materials, it spent at least 1000 years buried in the peat and muck on the northern end of Marco Island. However, this is not the specific cat that needs a facelift.” 

According to Heather Otis, the Marco Island Historical Museum Collections Manager who conducted the very first virtual Zoom presentation from the museum on August 10th, “It was rare to find artifacts that didn’t disintegrate immediately when they were removed from the muck. The problem presented because the artifacts were buried deeply in non-oxygenated swamp, and when removed into an oxygen environment, they quickly started to decay. 

The Marco Island Historical Society staff poses with the refurbished Key Marco Cat.

To add to the challenge, the artifacts that were discoveredcataloged and sketched had to accompany famous anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing back to the University of Pennsylvania without further damage to them! Imagine the length of that trip in 1896traveling across rough terrainand the challenge of transporting over 2000 precious artifacts in precarious situations that far without damaging them further. I would think that the difficulty of salvage, shipping and storing would improve their value, right?  

You’re probably asking, what does this have to do with a Feline Facelift?” The original 6-inch artifact is too priceless on which to perform a “facelift,” and really it doesn’t need one, BUT huge, 6-foot replica was created of the original Key Marco Cat was created; symbol of the rich history of Marco Island. However, it was huge, a replica statute more than 6 feet tall, rather than the 6 inches of the original. The elegant, bronze statue of the Marco Cat is a reminder of our history and an appropriate first impression of the museum. The funding was graciously financed by Gail and Emil Fischer in 2009 for the courtyard of the Marco Island Historical Museum.

(L – R) The experts Casey Koehler, Joe Portner, and JC Del Rio.

Joe Portner sprays a base coat on the “big” cat.

Heather Otto informed the audience during the virtual Zoom presentation, that “the original sculptor, Carl Wagner, completed the statue in January of 2010, which was the same year that the Marco Island Historical Museum building was completed, and was officially opened full-time in 2011. 

Even before the Category 3 (125 mph) Hurricane Irma, which destroyed much of Marco Island and surrounding areas in 2017, the protective surface coat of the of the ‘6-foot Cat sustained pitting, and continued to deteriorate until large areas of the bronze were exposed,” according to Otto. Homes destroyed, trees uprooted, residences flooded, windows imploded and beach erosion, to name a few of the damages. And then there were the unforeseen damages to the large Key Marco Cat posted in the courtyard to greet visitors and pose for photos as they enter the museum property. 

In the Fall of 2019, a restoration project was developed based on the condition and rapid degrading of the bronze. In 2020, Gail Fischer donated the funding for a complete restoration by a professional Conservation team and after much consulting by the team and a ton of elbow grease, the 6-foot Key Marco Cat has been restored to its purrrfect self. This is your chance to be greeted in the courtyard outside the museum by the restored statue that glistens in the beautiful Marco Island sunlight before you head into the museum of course! 

Generous donator Gail Fischer contributed to the creation of the initial 6 ft bronze Key Marco Cat and also to the recent dynamic renovations.

So, how did MIHS get the final restoration completed? First, a Conservator had to be researched and found locally if possible. A Conservator is an expert in the field of restoration. Then, the Conservator evaluates the project and determines the steps to rehab the statueExperts Casey Koehler, Joe Portner and JC Del Rio were enlisted to conduct the work, which progressed over several daysincluding removing the compromised surface, reassessing the base color and consultation about colors to apply on top of it to achieve the patina desired. 

After painstakingly removing the previous layers of compromised paint materials, the team worked on producing chemical reactions that were applied when the new bronze was hot and then sealed with a wax or lacquer layer. The golden eyes were not on the original statue but were added with gold leaf paint, and then two additional clear coats, a flattening agent and a final layer of satin. By nowit’s Day 8 and it’s time to waxbuff and then voila’, the rehabilitation of the gigantic Key Marco Cat is complete. 

Ongoing maintenance, including a team of volunteers that will clean the statue on a regular basis and keep it in prime condition, is important to its maintenance. It’s imperative to the longevity of the 6-foot statue and its important symbolic greeting to the myriad visitors coming to the Marco Island Historical Museum to enjoy the display of the 6-inch Key Marco Cat, as well as its other precious artifacts on display at the museum. If you are interested in being part of the rehab team, please notify the MIHS, it’s an easy way to donate your                                                                                                                   time.


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