Stone Conservation, Public Art Conservation:
On a seven acre site on the grounds of the U.S. Census Bureau Building in Suitland, Maryland is a series of walls, benches, and winding paths through a thoughtfully landscaped setting. These elements which consist of tile, pavers, and earth compose Census Walk by Numbers, 2010 by artist Anita Glesta.
By 2018, the artwork was in need of conservation treatment. This March, Marcin Pikus, Conservator of Stone Sculpture and Architectural Features, traveled to Maryland to perform the conservation treatment of Census Walk by Numbers just outside of Washington, D.C.
The artwork features numerical systems from various cultures such as the Native Americans, Mayan, Persian, Korean, Ethiopian, and Hebrew. The included numerical systems are meant to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States of America. When viewed from above, the numbers 0-9 which are constructed from man-made materials appear within the surrounding landscape.
In the artist’s own words, Anita Glesta describes the artwork “for the Census Bureau, the abstract concept of data and numerical representation is transformed into its original role as a system invented to promote, stimulate, and record human interaction… The numbers zero through nine tell the story of counting and are used to create a passage that connects the original house for the census data, Suitland House, at the “number 1″ area with the other seven acres of the site. A series of numerical forms and structures throughout the grounds introduce the history of census and provides seating and visual gathering places for the ten thousand employees of the building.”
For the conservation treatment of the site work, Conservator Pikus needed to remove any additional elements not original to the piece and to replace or treat any deteriorating materials such as the brick and mortar components. Only Numerals 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 were treated.
The first step involved clearing of any materials not present at the time of installation from Numeral 1. Any gaps or holes were filled with an exterior grade, waterproof single component grout.
Once this was complete, an exterior grade waterproofing coating for masonry and concrete was used to cover the edges of the wall. The material was carefully hand-mixed to produce the color of the existing substrate.
Two coats of the waterproofing material were applied: the first by brush, and the second by a roller to recreate the previous texture. This surface treatment allowed the wall to be protected from deterioration from water infiltration without interrupting the intended appearance of the sculptural element.
For Numerals 2-4, the primary issues were failing mortar and disbonded bricks. For the conservation treatment, loose mortar and debris were carefully chiseled away by hand. The bricks were returned to their original positions and joints filled with a new repointing mortar.
For Numeral 8, the damages were similar in that the brick and mortar components were also failing, but the deterioration was notably more extensive. The treatment involved chiseling out the partially attached bricks and then removing the previous mortar and debris.
Since the artwork is outdoors, future maintenance will include removal of any soiling and biological growth. The condition of the joints should also be monitored over time.
In the meantime, since spring is a wonderful time of year in the Metropolitan Washington D.C. area, we encourage you to take a walk on the grounds of the U.S. Census Bureau Building on Silver Spring Road and stroll along the winding paths of Census Walk by Numbers.
If you are feeling more adventurous, however, check out other works of art by artist Anita Glesta who has sculpture and video installations as well as public works all over the world from New York, New York to London, England to Sydney, Australia.