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Wolfe's Angel cleaned and repaired

Images from last year and last week show the result of a good cleaning of Wolfe’s Angel. Her finger and star will be reattached soon.

Kara Warren taps a chisel with a hammer, gently chipping off rock-hard adhesive bit by bit.

It’s a slow and painstaking job to rehab Thomas Wolfe’s Angel, the most famous above-ground resident of the historic Oakdale Cemetery. Wolfe’s father, William O. Wolfe, installed the marble angel in Oakdale Cemetery in 1905 for the daughter of Margaret Bates Johnson (1832-1905), whose grave it marks.
W.O. Wolfe made at least eight angels and others exist in Old Fort and Bryson City. Research by a Thomas Wolfe expert at Pack Memorial Library in the 1940s (and reported by John Boyle of the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2015) confirmed that the Oakdale angel is indeed the one the Asheville writer refers to in his classic novel “Look Homeward, Angel.”
“I read it in high school,” Warren says of Wolfe’s most famous work. “I should go back and read it again since I’m working on her.”
A native of Alabama, Warren earned a degree in visual arts and sculpture from the University of Alabama. She has been a conservator at the Biltmore Estate since 2006. The Hendersonville Historic Preservation Commission hired her last fall to clean and repair the angel, which was looking more like the honky-tonk variety than one from the firmament. On a sunny day last week, Warren chipped away at an area underneath a break in the angel’s wing.
WolfeAngelKara7 copyConservator Kara Warren works on the base of the most-loved sculpture in Oakdale Cemetery.“There were probably four different types of material that were around the break,” she says. “I think people just kept trying to see what they could do. Because it’s so hard I just have to do it very carefully and that’s what takes so much time.”
Warren doesn’t know what broke the angel’s wings. Neither does Susan Frady, the director of the city’s Department of Development Assistance.
But Dot Marlow, who was friends and neighbors with Johnson Farm owners Vernon and Leander Johnson, shared a story from years ago. A young man who was a passionate Thomas Wolfe fan got a little too robust in his affection.
“He knew the Angel was in a cemetery and found out where it was,” Marlow wrote in an email. “He was so excited about seeing it that he hugged it and part of the wing fell off. He was so distressed that he went right to the police or sheriff’s department and learned about the relatives, Vernon and Leander Johnson. He came out to the farm with tears in his eyes expecting them to be very angry with him. Of course, Vernon and Leander were not that type and tried to console him and said they knew it could be repaired. It was and that is when the wrought iron fence was placed around it.”
The Johnson brothers became friends with the young man and corresponded for years after they met.
It’s not clear if the exuberant fan caused the two breaks that are visible now.
Warren is delicately patching around the breaks to make the jagged lines less noticeable.
“The adhesive is holding it well,” she says. “At this point we’re not going to remove the wings.”
Not so the angel’s right index finger and star, which Warren has removed and repaired. When she reattaches them, the angel will be in better shape than she has in a long time. Before she started repairs, Warren worked for weeks using a special solution, soft brushes and a bamboo skewer to remove biological growth that had discolored the white marble.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” she said of her time with the angel. “It’s very peaceful out here.” Mostly. One day she looked down and saw a black widow spider crawling across her gloved hand.
“I love working on public sculpture,” she adds. “It’s just very meaningful to me to be able to work on sculpture that everybody can experience.”