Why Broad Street's giant paint glob wound up backwards

The orange paint blob on Broad originally leaned to the west, as seen in a photo from the summer of 2011 (left), but, to deter skateboarders, was turned around, as of May 30, 2012.
The orange paint blob on Broad originally leaned to the west, as seen in a photo from the summer of 2011 (left), but, to deter skateboarders, was turned around, as of May 30, 2012. (PETER MUCHA / Inquirer Staff)
Posted: June 10, 2012

Passersby on Broad Street can't help but notice the giant paint glob.

It sits on the sidewalk, like a six-foot-high swirl of soft-serve ice cream, only brilliant orange, next to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, across from the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The dollop's positioned to appear dropped from the top of the collosal brush of Claes Oldenburg's "Paint Torch," which towers several stories above.

Few have probably noticed, though, that the blob is now backwards.

When the sculpture was installed in July, the paint-drop's peak was on the brush side. Now it rises toward Broad.

Skateboarders, it turns out, set the wheels of change in motion.

More than a few chose to mindlessly detour from the sidewalk to skip off the glob, extensively scratching and marking its surface, said Harry Philbrick, museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which oversees adjacent Lenfest Plaza and its two sculptures, the Paint Torch and the Grumman Greenhouse, a real but rearranged airplane with plants inside.

So the damaged drop got shipped via tow truck to an Edgemont auto-body shop, Keenan Auto Body West, which also recently repaired a Nittany Lion sculpture vandalized at Penn State's Brandywine Campus.

"The whole thing was covered with marks," shop manager Max Sorensen said of the glob. "... We polished the whole entire piece with a buffer and rubbing compound."

Gouges in the fiberglas had to be filled with clear resin, because the tip glows at night, thanks to a light inside. The brush atop "The Paint Torch" also shines nocturnally.

After sanding, the piece was sprayed with a clear sealer, then the orange base coat, followed by a new, stronger ceramic clear coat. "It's basically like the paint that's on a Mercedez-Benz," Sorensen said.

A paint job for a paint blob.

As for cost, he'd only say, imagine a car getting a first-class paint job.

On May 30, the piece was reinstalled on Broad Street, surrounded by a moat of uneven paving stones, a kind of rumble strip for skateboards.

It was also turned 180 degrees. On purpose.

Matching, it turns out, the sculptor's original design.

The hope was that, with the most upright side toward the sidewalk, skateboarders would be less tempted.

Sculptor Oldenburg was consulted, of course, Philbrick said. "He was fine with that, so that's what we did."

Ironically, the cone now tilts the way the "Clothespin" sculptor originally imagined.

He simply changed his mind last summer, during the installation, after getting a good look at the site, Philbrick said.

By Wednesday, though, the dollop already had a few new scuff marks.

The piece is tougher to scratch, so chances are good the marks can be harmlessly removed with rubbing compound, Sorensen said.

The moat of irregular pavers also needs to grow, so skateboarders can't make the jump, Philbrick said.

They're mostly motivated by a sense of fun, he speculated. "I don't think it's malicious at all."

Still, as PAFA spokeswoman Heike Rass points out, "We do have guards, and we do have cameras, absolutely."

Under a new City Council proposal, those skateboarding, bicycling or roller-blading on public art or monuments could be jailed for 90 days and fined $2,000.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.

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