SUNY New Paltz artist volunteers to repair Rosendale rhino statue in memory of Judy Sigunick

(Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Somewhat abashedly, Rosendale town councilman Ernest Klepeis admits that, when he was too young to know any better, he was among the many kids using the Youth Center playground who succumbed to the temptation to climb up on Pumba’s back. Pumba, for those who don’t know, is the concrete rhinoceros sculpture that stands between the shuffleboard court and the porta-potties, behind the Rosendale Recreation Center. He was sculpted by the Cragsmoor-based artist Judy Sigunick in 1997, and given his nickname by Tillson resident Sam Keller. Pumba’s belly once housed a kiln, which Sigunick used to fire ceramic tiles designed by children in the town’s Youth Program and later installed inside the Youth Center itself.  

The rhino statue is life-sized, close to six feet tall at the rump and about double that in length. But he’s not quite as sturdy as he looks. They’re not supposed to, but children have been climbing on him since soon after he was first installed, the kiln cooled down and closed off. “That’s a big no-no, insurancewise,” notes Klepeis. And all that wear-and-tear over many years has taken a toll. A “Keep Off” sign was erected a bit too late to forestall the damage that is now becoming apparent: There’s a triangular hole in Pumba’s left butt cheek; only half remains of what appears to have been a patch over it, and you can see clear through to the statue’s hollow interior, past the metal mesh that holds his concrete-and-stone-dust hide in place.

Sigunick, who died of liver cancer this past April, was known for her fanciful ceramic figures with roughhewn features, many inspired by characters from Shakespeare plays. “Charismatic megafauna” such as Pumba, the whale sculpture in Poughkeepsie’s Waryas Park and lots and lots of elephants were also favorite subjects. Always Sigunick was open to the vagaries of the firing process, and the surfaces of her works were typically veined with hairline fissures.


So, the cracks that appear in Pumba’s armor are not all necessarily signs of damage or structural instability. Some of them leak white streaks of lime across the rhino’s surface, as if trying to heal themselves. But there are a few — notably a wide crack in the right shoulder — that appear to have been deliberately “pointed” with fresh mortar at some time. The surface of Pumba’s horn, which looks white because it was coated with a mix of resin and marble dust, also has been chipped.

At the Rosendale Town Board meeting on August 14, Klepeis, who serves as liaison to the Youth Commission, reported that a former teaching colleague of Sigunick wants to honor her memory by repairing the rhino, free of charge — even supplying the materials himself. “My children have been campers, swimmers and regulars at the Youth Center and playground,” Ed Felton wrote to town officials in July. “Judy Sigunick was a colleague and friend since I met her in 2000. We worked together at SUNY New Paltz and remained friends ever since. I’d be honored to play a role in repairing and preserving Pumba.”

According to Klepeis, Felton manages the Wood Studio at SUNY New Paltz, in addition to teaching design, woodworking and sculpture. Assisting him would be Jeff Johnson, who runs a custom woodworking and restoration business. Felton has proposed patching the large hole on Pumba’s rump with wire mesh and concrete fill, surfaced with a concrete patch and stone dust mixture to match the current surface patina. Original materials would also be applied to the eroded areas of Pumba’s horn. Small fractures over the entire sculpture would be stabilized and moisture penetration halted using a penetrating concrete sealant.

The Town Board did not vote on Felton’s proposal, instead punting it back to the Youth Commission for further consideration and recommendations. Klepeis suggested that it might become necessary to surround the rhino sculpture with a fence and garden in order to discourage further use as a climbing gym.