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Published: Sunday, 6/30/2013 - Updated: 2 years ago

The Art of Conservation

Maintaining outdoor works blends science, elbow grease

Conservation interns William Shelley, left, and Marissa Stevenson wash off an outdoor sculpture at the Toledo Museum of Art. Conservation interns William Shelley, left, and Marissa Stevenson wash off an outdoor sculpture at the Toledo Museum of Art.
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When Second Daughter needs grooming outside the Toledo Museum of Art, her handlers show up toting toothbrushes, buffing rags, and wax, ready to give the beautiful big girl a good working over.

The intricate, sturdy, cast bronze sculpture of a horse that appears to be constructed out of driftwood by artist Deborah Butterfield is one of 25 outdoor sculptures on the Monroe Street museum grounds.

They withstand extreme heat and cold, bird droppings raining down from above, and “city dirt” in the form of pollutants and grime. It’s the job of Suzanne Hargrove, head of the museum’s conservation department, and Jeff Boyer, conservation technician, to handle the complex, heavily detailed job of keeping all of the sculptures spruced up.

Hargrove said the work is akin to taking care of a high-end car.

“The concerns you have are not unlike your automobile. You have both temperature extremes — very cold winters, very hot summers, lots of intense sunlight where temperatures are being heated up or cooler evenings where temperatures are cooling down.

“You have issues with rain or snow and for some of the sculptures there is concern about ice melt products because those can be deleterious and cause corrosion on a sculpture.”

The conservationists dote over the various sculptures, documenting any nicks or paint issues, taking photographs, and making sure that the works — some of which date back to the early 20th century — are maintained properly.

On a recent Monday they were working on Second Daughter along Monroe Street. A temporary tent was put up over the piece so the four-person crew, which included Boyer and Hargrove, could wax and buff the sculpture. With its multiple branches winding in and out of each other, the piece requires patience and meticulous attention to detail.

Conservation intern Marissa Stevenson waxes an outdoor sculpture at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo. Conservation intern Marissa Stevenson waxes an outdoor sculpture at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo.
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Boyer noted that there is “country dirt and city dirt. City dirt is the worst.” As he talked cars zoomed past on Monroe, belching a steady stream of exhaust that is larded with pollutants. Second Daughter’s sturdy nature and textures mean lots of people will want to touch it, which leads to build-up of oil and grime.

Other sculptures have different demands and concerns. The hulking Stegosaurus in front of the museum is painted metal, and artist Alexander Calder left specific stipulations on how it is to be repainted and handled. He was interested in the piece maintaining its industrial appearance and the Calder Foundation, which oversees the handling of his work, collaborates with TMA on any repainting that needs to be done, Hargrove said.

“Really a lot of the care and attention that happens to these sculptures depends on the artist’s intent and the artists estates’ wishes,” she said.

Other processes include washing with a non-ionic mild detergent, using soft brushes to remove grime, applying hot or cold waxes, and regular inspections to make sure any deterioration that is occurring is monitored closely.

Attention to detail is a big deal. Boyer said that sprinklers are positioned so that they don’t spray on the sculptures and the grass around the pieces is trimmed by hand to avoid any damage.

Hargrove also is responsible for conserving the indoor art, and when it was noted to her that it all seems like a pretty big job, she laughed.

“I worry about everything all the time,” she said. “It’s not just the outdoor sculpture. Just being responsible for the entire collection here at the museum I’m thinking about everything all at once.”

An observer noticed a little flaw on Second Daughter and she climbed down off the ladder where she was working on the piece’s upper torso and started rubbing what appeared to be some left-over wax build-up. She buffed and used a brush on the tiny imperfection, distractedly talking, but clearly more interested in her work.

When she was done, the spot had been removed and she was able to get back to work where she had left off, already thinking about what still needed to be done.

Contact Rod Lockwood at: rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.

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