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In San Juan, Puerto Rico there is a forty-five foot totem pole pointing towards the blue Caribbean sky. The totem pole, Totemic Sculpture, 1993 by Jaime Suarez is a concrete pole roughly thirty inches in diameter that is clad with jagged high-fired, decorated ceramic elements.

Totemic Sculpture, 1993 by Jaime Suarez

Jim Gwinner, Conservator of Public Art and Sculpture, of McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory just outside of Cleveland, Ohio traveled to Hato Rey Central barrio to perform a condition assessment of Totemic Sculpture. This follows a previous conservation treatment of the ceramic artwork in Puerto Rico in 2014.

Totemic Sculpture, while the terracotta color and spiked surface appears ancient, if not foreboding, the top crown of spikes appears to mimic the cluster of many nearby modern buildings.

A detail of the top of the sculpture juxtaposed with surrounding modern buildings

Jaime Saurez, according to the artist’s plaque, “created a contemporary symbol, charged with the archaic splendor of primitive totems..surface treatment becomes a theme of opposites, where solid geometric symbols are superimposed over spontaneous gestures and calligraphy”.

A detail image shows the exposed concrete sections and decorated tiles

In 2014, a conservation treatment of the ceramic artwork in Puerto Rico was needed. While the sculpture was in excellent condition, the surface was marred by biological growth and surface soiling. The raised or sharp fragments of the design did surprisingly deter birds for the most part, but seeds and other environmental debris collected in crevices. The original stain on concrete areas had also failed over time.

Conservator Gwinner consulted with Suarez to recreate the areas of stain with an updated product that would provided greater durability and maintain the original look approved by the artist. Gwinner cleared the surface to remove debris and biological growth. The new stain was then carefully applied to the artist’s specifications.

Over six years after the conservation treatment of the ceramic artwork in Puerto Rico, the sculpture remains in very good condition. Conservator Gwinner rented a large boom lift to properly inspect the sculpture.

Conservator Gwinner painstakingly checks each section to ensure it is attached to the substrate

Extreme weather events in the area did not impact Totemic Sculpture as all sections were well attached and free of physical damage. Any return of biological growth and environmental debris seen in 2014 was now negligible.

Exposed concrete sections had weathered well and relatively evenly; however, the color had faded due to the intense Caribbean sun which is expected.

A detail image shows the decorated ceramic tiles and colored exposed concrete sections whose color has faded with outdoor exposure

Conservator Gwinner completed the conservation assessment of the ceramic artwork in Puerto Rico, and provided instructions for future treatment and maintenance.

Jaime Suarez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1946. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Architecture at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1969 and his master’s degree in Urban Design at Columbia University, New York, in 1970, and continued his career in Puerto Rico as an an artist, architect, set designer, and teacher. Suarez is an award winning artist that is best known for his large scale outdoor ceramic pieces as well as smaller, more intimate works. Learn more about the artist’s process in this video.

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