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The agents of loss are always working to steal the past from us: moisture, termites, rot, mold, even our society's thirst for new things, which we often make room for by throwing away with both hands the places and objects that make up our heritage. While living in a disposable society means you'll never have to wonder whether you're up-to-the-minute fresh, it also can mean living in a culture that drifts untethered from history, and is therefore doomed to repeat its mistakes over and over.
At the Historic Arkansas Museum in downtown Little Rock, one of those working on the frontlines against shared cultural loss is the museum's on-staff object conservator Andy Zawacki (it's a Polish name, pronounced: "Za-VOT-ski"). Though he was trained as a museum conservator, with particular emphasis on the preservation of wooden objects and furniture, since hiring on in 1981 Zawacki has grown into the museum's resident polymath, working behind the scenes on projects big and small, from cabinet making to historical artifact reproduction, paper and photograph conservation to the unobtrusive and underappreciated art of making historical object mounts that disappear into the background of a display. With Zawacki scheduled to retire in three years, officials at the museum will tell you without hesitation that they'll never come close to being able to fill his big shoes with just one hire.
Born in Madison, Wis., a fact that his heavy Midwestern accent still betrays, Zawacki started out as a woodworker with a particular interest in history. As a kid, he and his friends used to ride their bikes across town to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, which, as was typical of many museums of the era, featured diorama-style displays of historical events. Zawacki said his father was an amateur woodworker and got him into building simple things from wood. "We lived walking distance from a lumber yard, so all the little guys and some of the little girls in the neighborhood would work on projects," he said. "They'd give us scraps. Anything under the radial arm saw, we could have. They would cut off four feet of something and just throw it under there in those days. We'd go down there with our wagons and just load up."
With his dad's help, Zawacki progressed quickly from nailing together birdhouses from scrap lumber to building wooden boats, something that's still a passion. He built his first boat when he was 12. "The first one, I wanted it to be a racing boat," he said. "We lived walking distance from this little lake, and there was some guy who had a little hydroplane. I'd be out there and think, 'Man, that looks cool.'... There are a lot of ways to go fast on the water now that don't cost that much," but in those days, a racing boat was the only way.
While still in high school, Zawacki raced the second and third boats he built, both made from ultra-light mahogany plywood, in the Class B stock outboard class at American Powerboat Association meets held at lakes and rivers all over the Midwest. He competed from 1970 to '73, and again in 1976. Piloting fragile, powerful boats that weighed around 100 pounds, racers competed on a one-mile oval course. It was dangerous business, and accidents weren't uncommon, Zawacki said.
"I would still like to build race boats, I just don't want to race," he said with a laugh. "I've done that, and I'm not that brave anymore. When you're 20 or in your teens, you're fearless. I have fear now." He still builds boats, just not for racing. He builds period-accurate wooden canoes, collects and restores outboard motors, and frequently takes a 20-foot cabin cruiser he built on long excursions, including a trip last October up the Arkansas as far as Muskogee, Okla., and a jaunt down the Arkansas and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico in June.
The bug for woodworking and understanding mechanical things having bit early, Zawacki majored in forest products at the University of Wisconsin and started building furniture. In June 1977, with a grant from a Polish-American foundation, Zawacki visited Poland and traveled all over the country in a work-study program in historic furniture conservation.
"The advantage we had in the socialist period was they concentrated the conservators into one workshop, so there were like 15 to 20 of us," he said. "You're not working with one person. You're working with 20 different guys who do it 20 different ways, within parameters. That kind of learning opportunity isn't available anymore. I was really lucky to get that."
After graduation and back in the U.S., Zawacki found a book at the library that listed every American museum with a furniture collection and wrote to them, inquiring if they had a position for a furniture conservator. "I got a really good response rate," he said. "Only about four or five didn't respond to me, but it was all negative. Nobody was hiring at the time." That included a no from the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, the predecessor of the Historic Arkansas Museum. Still hoping to work in the field, Zawacki took a contract position with the state historical society of Wisconsin. He was surprised six months later when he received a letter from Territorial Restoration Director Bill Worthen. "He wrote me a letter out of the clear blue and said, 'If you're still interested, submit a resume because the position opened,' " Zawacki said. "I did, came down and interviewed and got the job." Zawacki's first day of work was Nov. 23, 1981, and he's been there ever since.
Worthen, who still heads the museum, said that hiring Zawacki turned out to be a great decision for HAM as a whole. "Here you have this guy who can do anything," Worthen said. "He can really do anything with his hands."
Over the years, with careful practice and study, Zawacki has mastered skills that go far beyond his original job title as on-staff conservator, working as a machinist, welder, metalcaster, mannequin-maker. Zawacki's most recent endeavor, Worthen said, is making cheeses to be smoked in the museum's on-site smokehouse. Worthen said that he's considered nominating Zawacki for the Arkansas Living Treasure Award of the Arkansas Arts Council.
"The quality of his work has meant as much as anything or anybody has ever done here," Worthern said. "It really helped us be on the map as a full-service museum."
After 35 years on staff, the fruits of Zawacki's labors are everywhere you look on HAM's grounds. Inside the Hinderliter Tavern, for instance, is a round, cage-like bar Zawacki built as a much younger man. With a locking serving window and a top studded with spikes to protect the bartender and liquor stocks from drunken patrons, it's a meticulous recreation of one he found in Kentucky.
Across the block, in the upstairs of a brick building meant to be a representation of the circa 1824 print shop of Arkansas Gazette founder and printer to the Arkansas Territory William Woodruff, stands another project that consumed Zawacki's craft and passion for over a year: a huge wooden press he built from oak and cherry, copying an original he found in Vincennes, Ind. Featuring Zawacki's artful woodwork and metal parts fabricated by Stone County Ironworks in Mountain View and Central Machine Shop in Little Rock, the press is period-correct in every detail, and has actually been used on occasion for demonstrations and to do short runs of handbills and other printed goods. In addition to the press, Zawacki built or oversaw the building of every item needed to operate a full-service 1820s print shop, from dinner plate-sized ink daubers to intricate type-composing sticks. Were Woodruff somehow brought back from the grave, he could start turning out fresh copies of the Gazette in short order.
Swannee Bennett, deputy director and chief curator of the 75-year-old Historic Arkansas Museum, said that Zawacki is a renaissance man and has been an integral part of building and preserving the museum's unique collection, which focuses on items made or used extensively in Arkansas. "We feel that's our focus: saving, interpreting, preserving that creative legacy that was Arkansas," Bennett said. "Andy Zawacki is an integral part of that because he makes sure that those things we're preserving and interpreting remain in the best possible condition they can be in."
Building his reputation as a conservator of historic wooden items, Zawacki has followed his passion all over the world during his career, including Morocco in 1996 and 1997, when he took an eight-month leave of absence from HAM to be part of a team of woodworkers and conservators put together by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to stabilize and preserve the minbar — a kind of tall, movable pulpit from which an Imam delivers his sermon — of the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh. "[The museum] asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said absolutely," Zawacki said. "Then, time went by and I sort of thought, well, nothing is going to happen. Then I got a call saying that unless somebody had an objection, I was [on the team]. Then I had to hustle to get somebody to live in my house while I was gone." Zawacki was able to recruit a paper conservator from Canada to cover his position at HAM and house-sit for him, then was off to Morocco.
Built in Spain in 1137 A.D., the minbar of the Kutubiyya Mosque was once fabulously detailed, with incredible interlocking inlay, minutely carved lattice and inscriptions of Koranic verse, but 800-plus years had not been kind to the delicate woodwork. Working slowly with tiny brushes, puffs of air and denatured alcohol, Zawacki and other conservators spent weeks just removing centuries of grime and dust from the minbar's delicate crevices. Once the piece was cleaned, they came back with hide glue and rabbit-skin glue to carefully reattach decorative pieces that were in danger of falling off. The goal, Zawacki said, was not to "restore" the piece, but to stabilize and preserve it, while allowing viewers to see the maker's intent via the parts that remained and faint, inked layout lines that guided the construction over eight centuries ago. "With the inked drawings behind and the amount of ornament that remain in place, you could still read the intent of the maker," Zawacki said.
The goal in the modern conservation of objects, Zawacki said, isn't to restore an object to the way it was when new, but to preserve what's there while stabilizing it for future generations. The other goal, he said, is to make anything you do to an object as a conservator completely reversible, in case better technology or science comes along someday. Going at the process of conservation from the viewpoint of preserving things, damage and all, means every historic artifact can have a meaningful impact on visitors, even if it's decayed to the point that it looks nothing like it did when new.
"Nothing is ever too far gone," Zawacki said. "It depends on whether or not the original intent [of the maker] is still readable. Sometimes that's enough. If it's missing half of it, you might not want to replace it all, you'll just want to stabilize what is there so you can still read what the artist's intent was ... . There's never really 'too far gone.' "
Too, even objects decades or hundreds of years old still have their surprises. On display in the museum is a set of Northumbrian bagpipes owned by Robert Brownlee, who settled in Little Rock for a time before joining the gold rush to California in the 1840s, and donated by a descendant. Brownlee's house still stands on the grounds of the Historic Arkansas Museum. After the pipes were donated, Zawacki was put in charge of preserving and building a display mount for them. While trying to fit a paper shim, Zawacki noticed a piece of yellowed paper had been rolled up tight and pushed into one of the holes.
"He had stuffed a California newspaper into one of the stops," Zawacki said. "It brackets the date that he put it in there because there were businesses listed on the backside of the paper." After looking up and cross-referencing when the businesses listed on the paper were opened and closed, the museum staff was able to pin down a single, five-year window when Brownlee could have put the paper into his pipes. "That was so cool," Zawacki said. "It's fun. It's really fun."
The minbar of the Kutubiyya Mosque may not be the oldest object Zawacki has worked on. In his cluttered office just off the room where the gadget-beautiful 1937 South Bend metalworking lathe he bought in Florida for $300 and restored holds court, Zawacki still has a detailed file on the 1999 recovery and preservation of the Peeler Bend Canoe, a 24-foot yellow pine dugout discovered half-buried in the mud near where Interstate 30 crosses the Saline River close to Benton. Carbon dated at over 900 years old, the canoe was likely made by the ancestors of the Caddo. It was created without the aid of metal tools by slowly burning out the center and scraping the charcoal away with stones. Zawacki said it was discovered by a Benton man, who got together a group of friends and recovered it with shovels and a trailer, then let it sit in the sun a full day before calling professionals.
"We got there the day after it came out of the water," Zawacki said, "and it was already beginning to check and crack. The problem is the wood is deteriorated. About 30 percent of the wood structure is gone, so it's quite weak." To halt the cracking caused by being dried out too quickly, the decision was made to sink the canoe in a local farm pond until a large water tank could be made to start the chemical process of drying it out. Zawacki was one of those who had to bite the bullet for history and wade into the farm pond "up to our necks in ice water" one December to attach straps to the canoe so it could be lifted out and submerged in the tank. It took two full years of careful monitoring and chemical treating before the Peeler Bend canoe was stable enough to be removed from the tank and displayed.
A lot of Zawacki's passion and focus right now is going into the construction of a new artifact for the museum's collection and living history efforts: an intricately made "pleasure wagon," created from hundreds of photographs and a minutely detailed set of measured drawings Zawacki made in January 2015 from a surviving 1830s example at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
A design created before the advent of steel axles and springs, the body of the little wagon will be less than 8 feet long. It features an ingenious series of wooden springs, including a curved frame that will flex as the wagon encounters bumps, and a cantilevered seat that floats on two wrist-thick pieces of springy white oak. Other than the forged metal parts and bolts made by HAM's blacksmith, Zawacki has made every piece of the pleasure wagon in his workshop. Impractical for almost anything other than leisurely rides around town, the wagon, Zawacki said, would have been the 1830s equivalent of a modern sports car, meant to show off the wealth of the person riding in it. They had to recreate it, Zawacki said, because such pleasure wagons would have been fairly rare even in their day. Few have survived.
"If you want a chuck wagon or a farm wagon, you might be able to find one. But if you want a pleasure wagon to run around town, you don't find those."
The process of building his first wagon, Zawacki said, has been a challenge all the way around, which makes it fun for him. That included researching the lost art of making wooden axles and light, strong wagon wheels. The project, he said, has been a near-perfect combination of his two great loves.
"That pleasure wagon, it's a combination of boat building and furniture making," he said. "If you look at the joints, there a lot of mortise and tenon [joinery], which is used in furniture making, but you're always fitting a curve to a curve , which is just like boats. It's a lot easier when everything is straight." He plans to have the wagon finished, painted and ready to roll by September.
At age 62, Zawacki doesn't appear to have slowed down any, though he's still planning on retiring when he turns 65. "I'll do stuff at home. I'll build more boats," he said. "I've got plenty of projects, plus I've got welding equipment. I make lots of yard geegaws."
When Zawacki retires, Swannee Bennett said, it will not be a process of replacing him, because he simply cannot be replaced. "You find somebody who has a skill set that will be valuable to the museum, but there's very few people who bring this much skill to any one position," Bennett said. "It's difficult. Of course, he could work anywhere."
Zawacki said that a life spent preserving history has given him an appreciation of how things and techniques that were once thought of as common and simple have been lost by modern generations. While he still finds the old ways fascinating, he said he likes it here in the future, and not just for its conveniences. "I had cataract surgery in early June, and it was borderline enjoyable," he said. "You don't feel anything. They're talking and stuff, and you're part of the process and it's over. Three days later you can drive. Just 25 years ago, it wasn't like that. My grandmother had cataract surgery in the '70s. She could see better, but it wasn't great. Now, it's a 15-minute operation."
Part of his job is being around artful things created by people who are long gone. That makes him realize that he has created things that will outlive him. It gives him a sense of being immersed in history, and part of the ongoing story of humanity.
"You notice things every day that have been here since before we were born," he said. "Somebody has died since these things were built. But objects live on."
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