Vaquero Returns: Conserving Luis Jiménez’s Monumental Sculpture

  • HELEN INGALLS: For more than two decades, "Vaquero," a monumental sculpture by Luis Jiménez, has greeted visitors as they entered the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Jimenez is known for his reinterpretation of images associated with the American West and Mexican American culture. Here, he updated the traditional equestrian sculpture to call attention to the rich contributions of Latinos who performed the grueling work of early ranching in the western United States.

    Conservators at the museum take care to protect the outdoor sculpture from the elements. Every year, they wash it and apply wax to protect it from extreme temperatures and humidity. "Vaquero" is made of a special kind of plastic, acrylic urethane, that is used to make shop signs and some car bodies, like the Chevy Corvette Stingray. This fragile material is susceptible to damage from the elements so after twenty years of enduring sunlight, acid rain, and other harmful conditions, it needed special care. In 2015, the sculpture was moved offsite for a comprehensive restoration.

    The following year, early on the morning of December 3rd, 2016, "Vaquero" returned home to SAAM. The sculpture was made in two separate parts: the horse, and the rider. These traveled separately, to be re-united at the time of installation. First, the horse was rigged on the crane along with its custom-made traveling pallet. Then, the cowboy was rigged and lifted securely onto the horse. Even after the horse and rider were joined, there was still a gap between the two portions, due to the sculpture’s design. If left uncovered, the gap could allow rain or snow to seep inside and potentially rust the piece. So, a conservator filled the gap with a caulking material, which dries clear, to prevent potential damage. The sculpture was then carefully lifted into place, on a custom plinth on the east side of the museum, high above the busy traffic of 7th Street. The glossy and colorful sculpture has a new lease on life, and is ready for the next twenty years.

    For more than twenty years, Vaquero, a monumental sculpture by Luis Jiménez, has greeted visitors as they enter the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Art conservator Helen Ingalls describes the challenges of caring for this unique sculpture and reveals the unusual materials the artist used. After undergoing careful restoration the cowboy has returned to its place outside the museum.

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