It’s springtime and that means we’re trying to spend as much time in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden as possible. We stopped to talk with NOMA’s Objects Conservator Ingrid Seyb, who was also working outside, taking care of artworks in the garden.
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What are you working on?
I’m refreshing the protective wax coating on Lynn Chadwick’s sculpture Sitting Figures. Like a lot of the bronzes, it was chemically patinated by the artist, in this case to be nearly black. The wax protects that patina layer from being damaged by exposure to moisture and corrosive organics like plant matter and bird droppings.
What does heating the sculpture do?
The heat drives the ambient moisture off the surface before the wax is brushed on. We have a lot of ambient moisture in New Orleans, so I wouldn’t get much done if I always had to wait for a day with no humidity. Also, by heating up the surface, the wax melts instantly on contact with the hot metal, which makes it easier to get a thin application of wax, and to work the wax thoroughly into the texture of the metal. Too much heat can burn a patina, but I’m careful.
How long does the process take?
With a smaller sculpture like this, a couple of hours, not counting the time to wash it beforehand.
Why is this type of routine maintenance necessary for outdoor sculptures in New Orleans?
Preserving the original appearance is generally a conservator’s goal with all artworks, so the viewer can see the work as the artist intended it to be seen. If we did nothing, Sitting Figures would eventually turn bright green, and that’s not what Chadwick intended it to look like. Some artists do of course make things that are intended to change, where that future change is explicitly part of the artwork. But for everything else where natural deterioration isn’t the artist’s stated intent, conservators usually work to prevent any change. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure for art as well as people, and a little effort put into regular maintenance can protect our outdoor sculptures from suffering too much in the intense Gulf Coast climate.
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