For more than a decade now, volunteers Ed and Shellee Lowry have had a unique experience to be up close and personal with several artists’ work during blockbuster exhibitions at Desert Botanical Garden.
The Lowrys are dust buster volunteers who help clean and maintain art exhibits at the Garden, including Chihuly in the Desert, on view through June 19.
Dust busting is an intimate type of work that allows volunteers to see and carefully touch art pieces that guests and some Garden staff aren’t allowed to do.
“That was one of the big draws — to get close and touch them, two things you’re not supposed to do,” Ed Lowry says.
The couple began volunteering at the Garden during the first Chihuly exhibit in November 2008. The experience was magical, the Lowrys says, that they returned every year to help clean other exhibits, including the spectacular light show from Bruce Munro.
And it’s not just annual exhibits, the Lowrys also polish the three majestic Chihuly Desert Towers, which greet guests at the admission center, almost weekly.
“A lot of people are afraid to touch them (Dale Chihuly’s artwork). They think they’re going to shatter, which isn’t the case because the glass is pretty thick,” Shellee Lowry says.
Most of the Chihuly installations are sturdy and can withstand almost anything, but volunteers need to be careful with smaller and finer art pieces. The cleaning process requires patience and attention.
Before each exhibition opens to the public, the Garden’s exhibits department trains dust buster volunteers — many who have returned to do the same work for decades — how to clean the installations and teaches them best practices to use when handling each artwork.
No glass forms, or pieces, are ever removed during the cleaning process.
Instead, volunteers use extension poles with a soft sham attached at one end to clean the art installation. A specific glass cleaner is used to make them sparkle and keep them clean, the Garden’s Exhibit Design Specialist Hillary Hirt says.
Hirt manages and schedules about 10 dust buster volunteers for Chihuly in the Desert. The work is typically done twice a week, and volunteers are always excited for their next shift.
“For a lot of volunteers, this is their chance to be up close and personal with a lot of beautiful pieces of glass. And being able to touch the artwork when you’re not allowed gives them that behind the scenes take from some of their favorite artists,” Hirt says.
Indeed, several dust bust volunteers have been recruited by artists over the years to help clean and install exhibits at other botanical gardens across the country.
The Lowrys volunteered one year at Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, but did not clean the installations. And they were also invited to the Chihuly Studio warehouse in Tacoma, Washington, to see the glass-blowing process.
What started out as a passion for volunteer service ended up being something special for the Lowrys. As dust busters, the Lowrys feel more connected to an artist’s work, watching how their work gets installed and taken care of throughout the run of an exhibit.
“We’ve been doing it a long time,” Shellee Lowry says. “We enjoy watching them install the pieces and cleaning them once they get here.”
The Garden is especially grateful to have the Lowrys and other dust bust volunteers who are committed to showcasing the beauty of artists’ work, including Dale Chihuly’s.
“We couldn’t do it without them. It takes a village to maintain these exhibits because they are so vast. Without the volunteers and the help of the dust busters, we wouldn’t be able to keep the show as tip-top as we do,” Hirt says.