Tom Eblen

Time, money heal horse

You hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one as beautiful as the Flying Horse of Gansu.

But it sure is tempting.

The life-size flying horse, you may recall, is a reproduction of an 1,800-year-old Han Dynasty bronze sculpture.

The city of Xi'an and Shaanxi province in China gave the statue to Lexington eight years ago when the Kentucky Horse Park hosted the exhibit Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History.

The city paid $15,000 to ship the statue from China to Lexington. For seven years it stood beside Chase Bank, across from City Hall, at the corner of Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Then, in the wee hours of June 7, 2007, the flying horse's support leg cracked at the shin and the 1,200-pound statue fell forward.

Thus ensued a costly, complicated rescue mission worthy of a Keeneland veterinarian.

After a year's worth of work that cost three times more than initial estimates, the flying horse will soon be back on Main Street. City contractors plan to hoist it onto a renovated pedestal Nov. 1.

The good news: The horse won't fall over again, that's for sure. Thanks to a new internal skeleton of stainless steel, the flying horse's one grounded leg can easily withstand the test of time, not to mention illicit midnight rides by drunken frat boys.

The bad news: Repairs have cost the city more than $38,000. And despite improvements, the flying horse will continue to confirm stereotypes about shoddy Chinese manufacturing.

Most sculptural bronze is 95 percent copper, 4 percent manganese and 1 percent silica. But the flying horse is more brass than bronze, making it vulnerable to cracking and pitting.

"The metal that was used was, in essence, what they use for plumbing fixtures," said Seth Tuska, whose art foundry and studio on Walton Avenue did the repairs. "It's a low-grade material that's very brittle."

The statue had no internal support structure, just an extra-fat leg to hold all of that balanced weight.

Tuska hired a structural engineer, who recommended taking the statue apart and fitting it with an internal skeleton. That required $5,000 worth of stainless steel that had to be carefully cut, shaped and welded.

Because the support leg had been cast so thick, it had to be recast so a 3-inch solid stainless-steel bar could fit inside. Then the horse had to be put back together, and many of its original welds had to be redone and ground smooth.

Cracks and pits not critical to the horse's structural integrity were covered with high-quality auto-body filler and topped with brass dust so the statue would age evenly. The golden brass patina was then darkened to bring out browns, blues and greens by using water and such chemicals as sulphurated potash, cupric nitrate, copper nitrate and ammonia. The flying horse will continue to darken naturally for a year or so.

"We can't believe it took as long as it did," Tuska said. "There was a tremendous amount of work, and a lot of people's hands in it."

Ideally, Tuska said, the statue should have been recast in sculptural bronze, because its brass surface will continue to crack and pit. But that would have been even more expensive.

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