The sleeping angel bench on Walnut Street in Berkeley which intrigued James Corr. Photo: James Corr

By Jim Corr

Last week, Berkeleyside ran a photo in its popular “Where in Berkeley” series, featuring a work of art on Walnut Street, just north of Rose Street, in Berkeley. The photo showed a bench supported at one end by a sleeping angel and at the other by a howling dog. It didn’t take long for an alert reader to identify the piece and its placement.

What the photo did not show, however, was what the angel apparently had been reading when he/she fell asleep, and therein lies a small piece of Berkeley art history.

In the angel’s hand is an open book, with writing on the left page that reads: “a loving heart/an enquiring mind.” On the other page it reads: “1906 Diana Buist 2000.” As the person who submitted the image, I was intrigued by this and decided to find out more.

The sculpture includes an open book, with writing that reads: “a loving heart/an enquiring mind,” and: “1906 Diana Buist 2000.” Photo: James Corr

At first glance, one would guess that the bench is a memorial to a 94-year-old lady — possibly local — named Diana Buist. The placement of a wailing pooch lends support to the idea that this might be in honor of someone who passed away and left a faithful dog. And the dog has its name on its collar — Johnny, which made me think this is a very specific animal. Adding a further note of mystery, between the time I took the original photo in the fall of 2010 and uploaded it to my website in the spring of 2011, the mouth of the dog was damaged, but sometime since then it has been repaired so well that the break is invisible.

Clearly someone, I assumed the artist — whose name does not appear on the sculpture — was taking an interest in maintaining this lovely and touching piece of art.

It turns out that I was mostly right: the bench is indeed a memorial to a Diana Buist who died in 2000, but she did not live in Berkeley or even in the USA. She lived in Corsica, and was a friend and mentor of the sculptor who designed the memorial — Judith Buist.

“Diana was so much like a mother to me that I formally adopted her last name in her honor,” Judith told me. “And my kids basically grew up with Johnny when we visited Diana during the 20 or so years I spent in Europe. So it was natural to include him in the memorial.”

The angel and Johnny the dog were among Judith’s first works in concrete, a material not immune to damage, especially given that this public piece is subject not only to the elements, but to children playing on the bench. Hence the damage to the dog’s mouth and head that has occurred on more than one occasion. On the kindlier side, Barbara Loebel, the owner of the property against which the artwork is placed, says that sometimes she finds a stick or a tennis ball left in the dog’s mouth for it “to play with.”

And the repair? It turns out that the work of repairing the damage was undertaken not by Ms. Buist, but by a neighbor, Jon Platania, who lives on Shattuck Avenue, just around the corner from the bench. Dr. Platania is both a licensed psychotherapist and a ceramicist. “It was the oddest thing,” says Ms. Loebel. “One day, I happened to write on my to-do list ‘consider Johnny,’ intending to get around to figuring out a way to fix the dog’s mouth and ears, and on that same day, Dr. Platania knocks on my door and offers to undertake the restoration for free.”

“I had long admired this piece in my journeying around the neighborhood,” said Dr. Platania, who, at the time he initially offered to help, was getting about in a wheelchair. “It has become a neighborhood icon, much beloved by children and adults alike. At first, under Barbara’s wishes, I re-attached the pieces she had: the jaw and the ears. But that did not last long, so I made a second attempt, entirely rebuilding Johnny, and so far he has survived a couple of winters much better. To be honest, I attribute part of my own recovery from a neurological disorder to the joy found in restoring another ‘being,’ one who as it happens shares my name.”

And so, in a corner of Berkeley, a delightful example of “private public” art connects four individuals across two continents, brings pleasure to the local community, and welcome relief to passing walkers or joggers.

Jim Corr is a Berkeley writer and photographer, an avid lawn bowler, and a fanatic supporter of Glasgow Celtic Football Club.

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