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Cleaning Chihuly artworks is an art in itself

ST. PETERSBURG — What the cleaners notice most when they're alone with the glass are the little things.

That eddy of dust on one spike of the Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier. The hollow, resonant sound that booms out when they tap one of the Macchias.

That fingerprint on one flower-like glass stem of the Mille Fiore.

Its telltale cloudy ridges are the mark of somebody who was so drawn to the glasswork, he or she couldn't help touching. Somebody who, for a moment, shut out the crowds and the enormous scale of Dale Chihuly's installation, locked eyes on one colorful bit of glass and reached out a finger.

Ned Kipping, 26, and Marko Savanovic, 27, can understand the impulse. As the official Chihuly Collection glass cleaners, they spend most mornings carefully polishing the artwork — without fighting the crowds for an up-close view.

"The novelty's worn off," Savanovic said. "Your mind kind of just goes into la-la land."

In the mornings, the Chihuly Collection is quiet. There are no visitors impatient to see the internationally renowned glass artist's works, only the hum of the air conditioning and the occasional squeak of a wiping cloth as Kipping and Savanovic brush away the dust.

As the collection's caretakers, they maintain the lights and change the air conditioning filters in a losing battle to keep the glass dust-free. Cleaning is a Sisyphean task: As soon as they've worked through the entire collection, the first installation is already peppered with dust.

Operations director Chris Silvia calls the duo her "rock stars." But they say it's not hard to clean these valuable works — they use regular household cleaners bought at the grocery store.

Kipping and Savanovic dust the glass with Swiffers almost every day, but the deep cleaning occurs on Sundays, when they eradicate plexiglass fingerprints with plexiglass cleaner and wipe down the glass with glass cleaner and cloth diapers.

Savanovic climbs a ladder to reach the top of the blue Stonecipher Chandelier, while Kipping bends down to polish the lower pieces. Usually, Savanovic listens to indie rock on his BlackBerry. Kipping prefers the silence. It's his "me time."

"You can't be shy with it," Kipping said, rubbing determinedly at a crevice. "You've got to dig your hand in there."

Are they afraid of breaking anything?

"It's just not gonna happen," Kipping said, shrugging.

The glass is surprisingly strong, Kipping says. It's about the texture and thickness of a beer bottle.

Neither Kipping or Savanovic expected to end up as professional glass cleaners in Florida.

Both grew up around New York City. Kipping, a former social worker at a homeless shelter in New Jersey, has spent years as a glassblower, working on lamps and goblets. Savanovic, who majored in industrial design, bounced around from job to job before becoming a volunteer at the Morean Arts Center.

For both — especially Kipping, who still blows glass when he's not dusting the Chihuly work — the art is an inspiration.

The Macchia, giant, undulating bowl-like forms, are their favorites.

"I like to see how big he goes," Kipping said. "You really think, 'How does he do it?' "

And in their own small way, the Chihuly cleaners contribute to the art's appearance, too, removing haze and bringing out its sheen. The way the light falls and the distribution of dust across a piece of glass can change the way it looks, if ever so slightly, Savanovic said.

"It's very dynamic," he said. "You make minor adjustments and it's completely different."

"It really sparks the imagination," he added.

Everything makes a small impact. Even that fingerprint.

Vivian Yee can be reached at vivian.hw.yee@gmail.com.

Cleaning Chihuly artworks is an art in itself 08/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 11:15am]
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