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This buffalo is not gone. It needs some help, though

Buffalo sculpture
The Springfield Art Association
John Keraney's Bicentennial Buffalo lives at the Springfield Art Association campus

The buffalo is not gone, but it is showing signs of wear.

That’s the chrome buffalo at the Springfield Art Association’s campus on Fourth street. The buffalo, a sculpture by the late artist John Kearney, has been at the campus since 1975, says Art Association Director Betsy Dollar. The Bicentennial Buffalo, as Kearney called it, is in need of restoration, she says, and a western-themed fundraiser will be held Saturday.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s obituary when Kearney died in 2014, the sculptor’s works are scattered throughout Chicago. The Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Dorothy and Toto are in Oz Park. A gorilla climbs a wall in Uptown. Others reside at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Collectors of Kearney sculptures include museums throughout the world and famous people, including Studs Terkel, Brigitte Bardot, Johnny Carson, Norman Mailer and Kirk Douglas, according to the obituary.

The Tribune writer, Rick Kogan, explained how Kearney’s fascination with the unusual medium started: “One day in the 1950s, Mr. Kearney brought a pile of auto bumpers from a local garbage dump. Tossing them on the ground in his studio, he saw in the pile of metal a ballerina's shape and created just such a sculpture. His course was set. Car bumpers were to become his medium.”

Dollar said an assistant to Kearney is working on the restoration. “He's still working out of his studio in Chicago, collecting the sculptures and cleaning them up. He repairs all the welds, cleans up any rust on the chrome, re-chromes sections, replaces sections.

“In the grand scheme of things," she said, "our buffalo is not in that bad of shape. But we really want him to last another 50 years. So doing it now is a good time, and especially while this guy is still around and able to restore them, knowing the inner workings of these particular sculptures."

She said there are not good records on the purchase of the buffalo or its original cost or what its value is now. “I'm not getting a lot of clear stories. The intent really was for it to be climbed on right from the beginning. We're not so big about kids climbing on it anymore because he's a lot more fragile than he used to be. So hopefully repairing him will take care of some of that, but I’m still not sure we want kids climbing on.”

“I don't have the slightest idea of what his current valuation would be. I think he has tremendous value to the community. I think many people who have not even had much to do with the Art Association over the years, have walked by and appreciated and climbed on and engaged with the Buffalo.”

The Buffalo Bonanza scheduled for 6:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday may generate the lion's share of the $20,000 needed to get his original sheen back. Donations can be made as well.

“It's going to be a very fun western-style event with line dancing and line dancing lessons. We are hosting Chris Camp, the whip guy, for a performance, as well,” Dollar says. “We will also have some games in the back studio that will have Western themes.”

Food will be provided by Cured catering. The tickets are $25 for cowpokes 12 and under, $50 for adults and $100 for an upscale experience at the Edwards Place Mansion, where there will be access to a VIP saloon with premium alcohol and live entertainment and costumed actors.

Volunteer awards will also be presented.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.