By Jasmine Willis
DANSVILLE — He was the ultimate Fitness Man for decades in our local history, and for many years he brought that empire to the hillside.
Bernarr Macfadden was known for his success in the world of physical culture. He purchased the Jackson Sanitorium in 1929 and renamed it The Physical Culture Hotel.
Under his leadership this business flourished in the small village. It became a health resort with a number of social activities and health therapies. There was swimming, sunbathing, tennis, and dancing. His resort became the magical place for the elite and celebrities to come and visit to get away from the bustle of the city life. Many who are old enough to remember the glory days will tell you stories about working for Macfadden, and dancing under the stars on the rooftop of the resort.
Bernarr and his young daughter, Byrnece had unique life sculptures made of them that once stood side by side in the resort. Bernarr’s was created when he was 60 years old by the renowned sculpture George Grey Barnard. His and Byrnece’s were created out of a plaster composite; not bronze like many have thought.
Over the years these important parts of local history have crumbled away. Recently, the Dansville Area Historical Society hired a sculptor, Dan DeZarn, of Geneseo, to restore them both to their original glory. The Byrnece Macfadden statue is fully restored back to its original look and on display. Over the last several months DeZarn has been working on restoring the Bernarr Macfadden statue.
On July 4 this local reporter talked to DeZarn about his process and what it takes to restore a decades old sculpture.
DeZarn said he had to completely restore the Byrnece Macfadden statue since it was so badly damaged. He did a lot of welding, plastering, and patching to get her back to what she was supposed to look like from the original. It took over a year to work on her since it was such a great challenge.
When it came to the Bernarr Macfadden statue there was a lot more work than he originally thought. DeZarn said he had to pick off the white and gold paint very carefully. There had been several coats applied over the years as patch work. He had to plaster a lot of pieces to keep it from falling apart.
DeZarn was born in Covington, Kentucky. He has exhibited in New York, Austin, Cincinnati, and Seattle. He received his master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Tennessee.
DAHS Members Paul and Aniko Constantine reached out to DeZarn at SUNY Geneseo to see if he knew of anyone who could take on the restoration project.
“Paul reached out to me about this to see if I knew anyone who would work on Byrnece. We had an art department at the college. I had been teaching sculpture there. I decided to come down and take a look at her. It was at that time I decided I wanted to try working on the sculpture,” he said.
DeZarn said this is the first time he has ever worked on an historic restoration project. Mainly, he would work on his own sculptures. He had some experience with this kind of material when he worked at Casting Arts and Technology in Cincinnati, Ohio. He worked with all kinds of material such as wax, clay, plaster, metal and patina.
“I started out doing art when I was a teenager and thought about what kinds of things I wanted to do. I had to think about what I wanted to focus on to get into a graduate program. I heard about an art program in Cincinnati called Casting Arts from a friend of mine. The guy that owns the foundry is really good. You all have to prove yourself there no matter what credentials you have when you walk in the door. I worked there for a couple of years and got really good at what I do,” he said. “I never made any of my own work out of bronze at the foundry. It never really appealed to me to make my art out of bronze. I use a lot of upcycle materials to create my work. For me it is all about the idea. I focus on the idea and work with the materials I have to make it happen.”
DeZarn has done steel, wood, ceramics, and a little bit of everything. He just works on whatever material is needed to make that idea form.
“I spent a lot of time doing jobs sitting at a desk. I got interested in doing art in high school. I have always had a job since I was 14 years old. I did a marketing research job where I would ask people on the phone what their favorite detergent was, and that is when I would draw a lot of sketches,” he said. “There were other artists who worked with me who needed to make some extra money. They would tell me I had a lot of talent. They told me to take this work to an art gallery. I had gone to check out what they did there.”
DeZarn had to look for his artist voice in the land of creativity. He decided to work on making sculptures. It is the same concept as working on a car only less pressure. If the sculpture is not what you want, or something isn’t really working you can change it around. If a car doesn’t work right, then you need to keep fixing the problem to make it function.
“You can only be so creative with working on fixing a car. I loved the free creativity with working on my tools and making a sculpture. There was no wrong answer in art. With a car if it doesn’t run there is a wrong answer. When working on a sculpture there is no wrong answer. You can just keep working on it until it is what you want,” he said.
DeZarn admitted that working on restoring historic art is a lot like working on a car. You do need to be more careful and research how to get it close to the original.
“This is something I have an interesting connection to the Castle on the Hill. When I came to the area it was the first thing I noticed. I wasn’t from the area originally, so I wanted to go and check this out. I saw all the signs saying no trespassing, but I wanted to go check it out anyway. I figured it didn’t matter if I got caught. I didn’t go inside the building, but I walked around the outside to see what it looked like. I did a lot of research on it after that, and got really interested in the history of it,” he said. “It was a really engaging thing. I was really taken by the beauty of the castle. I am excited to be working on a piece of it with these statues.”
DeZarn said he hopes to be done with the Bernarr Macfadden statue by the end of the month. He said that as an artist you know you have done a good job when you are proud of your work. DeZarn needs to finish getting the old paint taken off and will make it look the way it was meant to look. All of his work has revealed the great detail of the original statue. He restored the leg, wrist, elbow, ear, and parts of the back.
“Sometimes you think the work is really straight forward, but you realize as you get started there is a lot more involved. I had gotten about 50 percent into the sculpture when I noticed there was a lot more work to be done. I had to chip away carefully at the layers of old paint. I had to patch up a lot more of the sculpture than I originally thought. I had to redo his ear. I had to patch up his shoulder, elbow, wrist, leg, and smaller patches here and there,” he said.
The Dansville Area Historical Society would like to have a program with DeZarn in the future to talk about the process of restoring the famous statues. The museum is open again on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Come and see the history come to life at your local historical society.
Dansville Area Historical Society located at 14 Church Street can be reached at 585-335-8090. It is open the first and third Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information on the Macfadden’s visit https://www.bernarrmacfadden.com For more information on the museum and how to be a member visit https://dansvilleareahistoricalsociety.org or https://www.facebook.com/DansvilleAreaHistoricalSociety/