Art & Me Preservation Family Workshop | Outdoor Sculpture

  • The art doctor is in! Explore how art conservators care for outdoor sculptures in this hands-on online workshop for children ages three to eight and their caretakers. Create your own outdoor work of art and observe changes using our art doctor conservation report.

    Part of a yearlong series that encourages families to experiment with artmaking and preservation techniques, this program is co-hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

    MATTHEW LASNOSKI: Hi, everyone. Welcome. Before we get started today, we're going to give you a chance to look at some artworks. As you can see, there's different kinds of weather in these artworks, and I want you to imagine how you might feel outside in these different weather conditions. So I’m going to give you a few moments to look closely at them. When you have some ideas, start putting them in the chat on how it might feel to be on the artwork on the left, the middle, and the right.

    Okay, so some people on the left have said that that one would be cold and used the word “winter,” so this one, yeah, they have an umbrella out, they're walking in what looks like a snowstorm, so it's really cold there. For the one in the middle, people say that it looks like a great summer. People are sitting out in the sun, so, yep. For the one on the right, some of the people said the word “wet.” It looks very rainy there, and it's during the monsoon rain, so that makes sense. Thank you for participating in this warm-up activity before we get started today talking about outdoor sculptures for our “Art & Me” presentation.

    So for our workshop today, we are going to be working with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, as well as the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Lunder Conservation Center. This program is going to be offered by Ellen Chase, Leah Bright, and Laura Hoffman, and now I’m going to give them a quick chance to introduce themselves to you. My name is Matthew Lasnoski, and I’m an audience engagement specialist at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

    ELLEN CHASE: Hi, and I’m Ellen Chase. I’m the objects conservator at the Freer and Sackler.

    LEAH BRIGHT: Hi, everyone. My name is Leah Bright, and I’m also an objects conservator but at the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    LAURA HOFFMAN: My name is Laura Hoffman. I’m the Lunder Conservation Center program manager at the Smithsonian American Art Museum or Leah and I like to call it, SAAM.

    ML: So now I’m going to turn it over to Ellen, and she's going to help explain what is a conservator.

    EC: Thanks, Matthew. Okay, so Leah and I are both conservators, and I don't know, I wonder if any of you watching today know what a conservator is. So if you do, just go ahead and type it into the chat and let's see if anybody has an idea of what a conservator might be. Or if you've ever heard the word—anything like that. Maybe if you've done one of our “Art & Me” sessions before, you can help out the other people who haven't seen it yet.

    ML: So, Ellen, I am hearing some people say, “art doctor.”

    EC: Right, actually, that's a good one. That's what we often say as a way to explain what we do. So an art conservator is someone who takes care of artwork, just like a doctor takes care of you and other people, and so there are lots of things that are similar between the two. If you look, today I’m wearing a white lab coat, right? So just like a doctor wears a lab coat sometimes when you go for an office visit, I wear the same thing when I work with art, and it helps protect me from any kind of material, like chemicals, that I might be using to work with the art. But it also helps protect the art, so if I’m doing something like wearing a big, fuzzy sweater, I’m not going to leave little fuzzy bits on the artwork.

    We use lots of different tools, and some of them you might recognize on this slide, but one of the things that we wear in addition to the lab coat is just like sometimes we want to protect—our hands have oils on them. Even if you wash your hands very carefully, there might be oil on there that could hurt artwork, so we oftentimes will wear gloves. Again, sometimes to protect us if we're using something to treat the art that might be dangerous for us but mostly to protect the artwork so that we're not getting any of our oils on the artwork and causing any kind of damage. One of the most important things that we do as a conservator is to look closely at things before we ever do anything. So one kind of tool that we have is something called an optivisor, which allows us to look at things really closely and get a very good idea of what we might be able to see that we couldn't just see with our eyes. If you were in my lab with me, I would show you, we even have something called the stereo microscope, which is a big microscope. We can get even closer magnification, so we can really understand what's happening with the art objects. Okay, next, please.

    So we're going to talk to you about different outdoor sculpture today that we have both at the Freer and Sackler and at SAAM. So we're going to start talking about these two sculpture, which are in the courtyard at the Freer. You can't see them right now because the Freer is closed, but once it's open, you can come and see. The courtyard is really fun to walk in anyway, and then you can come visit these sculptures. So before we go into too much more detail, why don't you guys just take a look at first and see what you notice about these sculptures and maybe type it into the chat. Think about what shapes you see, what color you see, what kind of things do you see in these sculptures? Maybe what you think it might be made out of?

    ML: One of the things that I see in the chat is someone saw a sword on the left and then maybe a parent and a child.

    EC: Right, exactly. These two sculptures are both made by an artist named Saint-Gaudens, and they're actually smaller versions. There were supposed to be large-scale, big ones made to go out in front of the Boston Public Library, but they were never made, so these were sort of his practice run. The different figures are law, power, love, labor, science, and art, and so that's what you see in the different figures. They're sort of this brownish-gray color because they are made out of bronze, and they have coloring on them to make them look this color, so they're metal. They're hard and they're metal, and they go outside and so when you were thinking about some of those different types of weather that you saw in the first slide, these sculptures will be out in that same kind of weather, so what are some of the things you think they might sit through? What might happen outside with these sculptures? What kind of weather do you think they might see, or what might they be in? So, remember, you saw snow, we saw rain, we saw sun—all those things these sculptures are going to sit outside in those kinds of things. So it's not like the pieces we have in the museum, where they're protected by the building. These are outside in all kinds of weather.

    So these are some close up so you can do some close looking of these sculptures and some of the different things that happened to them from being outside. So take a look and see if you can figure out or see what you notice on these three pictures, and tell me if you can guess or what you think might be happening here to these sculptures from being outside.

    ML: So Ellen, I’m seeing someone guess that that looks like a spider web.

    EC: Right, on the left, exactly. That is a spider sac and a spider web. So just like there are insects outside, there are insects all around the sculptures, and there are these little circles in the back that are nice little safe spots for the spiders to make their webs. How about one of the other two; did anybody say anything about those?

    ML: Yeah, someone thinks that the one on the bottom right might be bird poop.

    EC: Yep, that's exactly what it is. So that is the top of the head of one of the sculptures, and, yes, that is what happens sometimes when things are outside, right? So just like you sometimes get bird poop on the car or something else, the sculpture has bird poop on its head. Then, the one on the top might be a little harder for you to figure out, but what that is that is corrosion. That's what happens sometimes to metal over time. It will change, and so the red and the green that you're seeing, that's changes on the surface of the metal that we don't want to happen. So we do a lot of different things to help protect the metal and the surface on it, which is called a patina, so that it stays looking the way we want it to look and the way it keeps the sculpture safest. So there are a bunch of different things that we do, and we can talk about some of the things we do to keep it safe.

    One of the things that we do every year is that we clean the sculptures because just like there's spider webs, they also get dirty, and there's dust and all kinds of things that settle on the surface, and so that can cause damage sometimes. So once or twice a year, we'll go out onto the courtyard, and we'll clean the sculptures, and you can see us doing that here. It's kind of like if your car gets dirty, you don't want it all just sitting on your car. So we clean it off on the sculptures, but we use special materials that are made for artwork. We'll use very gentle soap, and we have special brushes that we use to wash it. Let me show you some special brushes like this. That's one of the things that we do on a regular basis, and then every once in a while, we need to do something a little bit bigger because sometimes—like that part was turning green and red—sometimes we need to do a little bit more to protect the sculpture, so I’m going to show you some other things that have been done.

    So this was done three years ago in 2017, and we did a really big treatment to it because it was really getting to the point where we kind of needed to do something more than just clean it, and if you go on the Freer/Sackler website, and I think it's posted in the Learning Lab for you. But if you go on the website, then you can see there's a video and a whole article and a blog post all about this particular treatment. But for this one, we couldn't do it in the courtyard. We had to bring it outside to the front of the museum.

    The first thing that had to be done was, over time, in addition to washing it, sometimes we put a protective coating to protect the metal, and it had kind of built up and there was a lot of it. So the picture on the left is someone using—it's called “carbon dioxide snow.” It's basically frozen carbon dioxide, and they're using it to clean off the wax, and when it's done, it's gone. There's nothing left. It helps clean it off without leaving anything behind, and then once that was done and everything was cleaned and we did all the other things, we needed to protect it again, so the right side is re-coating the sculpture with something that keeps it safe and protects it. The fire is not on the sculpture at all. I know it's kind of a scary-looking picture, but that's just to warm the air around the sculpture to make sure that the protective coating goes on really well. So don't worry; we didn't burn the sculpture when we were treating it. But, again, if you want to look online, you can see a whole video and it'll show you both of these processes: what they're doing and how it happened.

    So that's the way we take care of this particular sculpture, but there are lots of other kinds of sculptures, too, and so now this is one that's actually in SAAM, and so Laura and Leah are going to tell you more about some of the outdoor sculptures they have there and how they take care of them.

    LH: Thanks, Ellen. So yes, this is an example of the same artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and while this originally lived outside, it lives indoors in our museum now. So let's turn our attention to some of our outdoor sculptures. Let's look at this first one here. So this is two different views of the same artwork. I want you to take a minute and really look at everything about it. I want you to notice what is going on here. What strikes you first? As Ellen mentioned, there's a lot of shapes and colors, and there might be something that you recognize.

    ML: So, Laura, one of the things that I’m seeing in the comments is someone says they see a cowboy.

    LH: Yes, very perceptive. So, actually, this is called “Vaquero” by Luis Jiménez, and “vaquero” is actually Spanish for “cowboy.” So this figure here is a cowboy. Are they noticing anything else?

    ML: Someone said, “Big, blue horse.”

    LH: Yes, so the cowboy is riding a big, blue horse, and, also, it's really interesting to look at the different scale when looking at outdoor sculptures. The outdoor sculptures that Ellen just showed were smaller in comparison to this one, which is very, very large. Leah, would you mind telling us a little bit more about the materials of this sculpture and how it gets treated?

    LB: Sure, thanks, Laura. So as you all so smartly observed, you see this bright, blue color. There's lots of bright colors going on in this sculpture, and it's actually made out of a material called fiberglass, which is the same material that a lot of signs and some really fast cars are made out of and even some sculptures that you might see at an amusement park or a water park. It's also really shiny and glossy, and that's because it has a clear, shiny coating on top of those bright colors that's kind of like a sunscreen that it protects the sculpture, like sunscreen protects you from getting a sunburn.

    But just like if you might have to reapply a sunscreen after you go in the pool or in the ocean, over time, that shiny coating on the sculpture starts to break down and has to get reapplied, so for that, it has to go to a very special art conservator, or like a special art doctor, who knows how to take care of these big outdoor sculptures. So this treatment took place from 2015 to 2016 in this big kind of what looks like a garage, like you would bring a car to a garage to take care of a car, here's a sculpture in a big garage. You can actually see that the cowboy is now off of the horse because it was made in two pieces, and so it's kind of like a Lego in that the top fits right on the bottom. You can also see in the corner there's a small photo, and that's actually what we call a cross section, so that's showing you all the different layers that are in the sculpture. You can see that shiny, blue coating on the top; that's actually what the top of the sculpture looks like.

    This is now the sculpture after it was treated, after it was cleaned, and all those that new shiny coating was put on. You can see that because it's so big, you need lots of special equipment and lots of people to help put it back on display outside the museum. Now that the “Vaquero” is back at the museum, we clean the sculpture once a year, and just like you might have to go to the doctor every year to make sure everything is working well, we do that to the sculpture. To monitor and to keep track of any damages that happen over that year, we have this drawing that you see on the right to keep track. Just like Ellen said about washing the car, we use those same kinds of tools: soft, fluffy brushes and a nice, gentle soap to clean it.

    LH: Thanks, Leah, and just to give you a sense of the different types of outdoor sculpture that we have here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I wanted to show you another example. This is Roy Lichtenstein’s “Modern Head,” and, again, talking about scale, this one is even larger, and you can see these three examples how different outdoor sculpture can look. These are actually visible from the street, so if you are in Washington, D.C., feel free to come by and check them out at any time. So let these really kind of inspire you because right now we want you to get out all of the materials that you collected to create your own outdoor sculpture, and here is an example, too, to see again just that scale that I was talking about.

    Alright, so for our art making activity, we're going to make our own outdoor sculpture, so we have suggested materials because with outdoor sculpture, as we mentioned, they can be made out of many, many different types of materials. So some suggested ones are cardboard, pipe cleaners, paint, glue, construction paper, but it's really whatever your imagination is. So, for creating a sturdy sculpture, we maybe can pull out our examples that we made to give some inspiration. So I made one, and I used all different cardboard boxes, and I wrapped them all in craft paper. What other ones—examples?

    LB: Here's mine. I wanted to make something that looked like a flower, and so I used a toilet paper tube, and I made a vine out of some tin foil, and I painted it.

    EC: I made one that looks kind of like a turtle, kind of like a frog, and I made this out of a toilet paper roll, an egg carton cart, construction paper, pipe cleaner, and then I was having so much fun that I made another one, and this one is made out of popsicle sticks and a bottle cap.

    LH: So the point is don't throw anything away; you can always turn it into a nice sculpture. So we're going to give you a moment to work on it, so you can feel free to pause the screen, give yourself some time, and, afterwards, unpause and we'll continue with the rest of the activity.

    EC: Okay, so hopefully you guys have had a chance to make your sculptures or at least get started on them, and so one of the things that we're going to do, which we did with our sculptures, is put them outside and see what happens to them, just like the outdoor sculptures we were just talking about. So if you just made something that you really, really love, you probably don't want to put it outside, but maybe you could make a second one that you could put outside just so you can kind of see what the different kinds of weather, like snow—well, maybe not snow now, but sun and rain—what those kinds of weather might do to your sculpture. So, as a conservator, like Leah was talking before, one of the things that we do is we look very closely at things, and we write it down so that we can keep track of how things are changing. So just like when you go to the doctor, you sometimes go because you're not feeling well, but sometimes you go because they're just checking up on you and making sure that everything's going okay, and they write down how you are so they know the next time. So we do the same thing, and we call it a condition report, and so before we put our sculptures outside, we're going to do a condition report. So I'll do one with mine. I’m going to use my animal, and you can either do it along with me, or if you'd rather do your own, that's okay, too.

    So to start, let's look at the form. You can see it here, and you should be able to print it out at home if you want to. So the first thing is your name, or in my case, my name, so I would put down Ellen, and then we need a way to show which artwork we're writing about or which artwork we're talking about in the report, so we sometimes we'll put down the name. Sometimes we have numbers. All of our artworks have numbers so we can keep track, so in this case, my artwork here does not have a number. So I’m going to call this “Turtle-frog” for the artwork’s name, and so what we want to be able to do is look at it closely before it goes outside so that we can remember what it looks like when it comes back in. So try and look and think about words that you could use to describe it. So you could talk about its color, you could talk about its shape, you could talk about how it feels, its texture, if it's soft, if it's hard. So just as an example, for mine, I’m going to say that it's blue because the body is very blue, and I’m going to say that it is light. It's not very heavy, right? It's very lightweight. So those are the kinds of things that you can say about yours. So does anybody have any other ideas about the “Turtle-frog”? What are some other words we might use to describe this artwork? Go ahead and let me know if you can think of any.

    ML: Someone said, “Tongue.”

    EC: Yes, there is definitely a red tongue, right? So those are the different kinds of things that you can write down. Then the other thing you need to do for your report before you finish up this part of it is see the emojis there, so which one describes how you felt after making your sculpture? So I know for me, I was pretty happy. I would definitely circle the big smile for mine. How about you guys? Yep, everybody else was happy when they made theirs, too, okay. Great. Okay, so this is when you could now go and put yours outside, but just so we can talk about what might happen, I actually made two of them, so you could see what it looks like before and after. So, remember, this is what it looked like before, the one on the left, and then the picture on the right, that's after. So what are some things that you guys notice? What do you think happened to it when it was outside? You see any differences?

    ML: Someone said that it lost a leg.

    EC: It did. One of the legs fell off, and then something happened also to the shell on it. What looks different about the shell now compared to the one that went outside? There's kind of a difference in… what? What do you notice?

    ML: The one on the right is lighter, the one that was outside.

    EC: Right, so what happened was the sun was so strong that it faded the paper. So this one was outside. I had it outside for a week, and it was very sunny and very rainy. We had lots of big storms in Washington that week, so it got really wet. So the reason it faded is from the sun, but the reason the leg fell off is because it got wet and it got soft. But, actually, I really thought that it was going to get a lot more mushy because it's cardboard, but I think that the paint actually protected the cardboard. So it's kind of like what Leah was talking about with the protective layer and the sculpture. It keeps some of the weather from hurting the artwork.

    Then the other one also went outside, and you can see there's a difference there, too. What do you see that happened there? What's the difference between the one on the left, which is before it was outside, and the one on the right, which is after it was outside? What do people see?

    ML: Some people wrote that it fell apart.

    EC: It sure did, and you know what? It fell apart even more because this is what the sculpture now looks like. So what happened was all of the glue from being outside—I don't know if it was from getting wet or being in the sun—but the glue all stopped working, and the whole sculpture fell apart. Now all I have are popsicle sticks. So even though the wood was fine, it didn't get hurt from being outside in the water, in the rain, but all the glue just fell apart, and so those are some of the different kinds of things that might happen to sculptures when they go outside. So you can take your sculpture and put it outside and see what happens and then come back and look at the second part of the report and do just what we did now but do it after it came back.

    LH: So, as you mentioned, you should definitely put it outside, or if you don't want to put it outside, you could put it in a sunny windowsill. It might need some more time to age if so and then fill out the second part. I also recommend on the Art Doctor Report, you'll see there's a bottom part to sketch it. You might want to sketch a before and after as well, so you can see that. So we want to know what changes happen to your sculpture when you left it outside and in the sun. Did they have the same results as Ellen's?

    So we would also love to see your artwork, so feel free to share them with us. You can email us the pictures at, and we'll add it to our Learning Lab and so we have a whole Learning Lab with the link on it. Also, we would recommend you going outdoors and seeing what sculpture is in your area and to really think about being an art doctor, putting on your art doctor caps, and seeing what materials this artwork outside is made out of. So, thank you so much!
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