Luis Jiménez was an American sculptor born in El Paso, Texas. He is best known for his colorful stylized fiberglass sculptures featuring both American and Mexican themes. The unique and bold forms of his sculptures provide a striking addition to any public space or private collection, but nothing bold can stay. Like any other outdoor work of art, exposure to the elements and time spur the need for conservation treatment.
Sodbuster San Isidro is one such sculpture. It is owned by the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota, and it is currently being treated at the McKay Lodge Conservation lab facilities just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Sodbuster features a muscular man in overalls plowing the land with a team of oxen. Colorful modeling of the articulated forms create a sense of movement characteristic of the late sculptor’s work. A number of copies of Sodbuster exist throughout the United States as well as a maquette of the sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection and lithograph held by the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jim Gwinner, Conservator of Public Art and Sculpture at McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, is in the process of treating Sodbuster. Gwinner has been fortunate enough to perform a number of conservation treatments of Luis Jiménez sculpture, most recently the treatment and reinstallation of Fiesta Jarabe at the Land Port of Entry in Otay Mesa, California and Vaquero at The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
When Gwinner undertook his first conservation treatment of a Luis Jiménez sculpture, Los Lagartos, it was clear to the art conservator it would be a challenge. The conservation treatment of Jiménez sculpture requires a sophisticated understanding of the artist’s materials and methods. Gwinner has spent months performing research, corresponding with primary resources, testing, and reaching out to PPG of the industrial coatings industry for long-term preservation solutions. With nearly five successful treatments completed and counting, Jim Gwinner has developed a measured approach and unique expertise in executing conservation treatments of Luis Jiménez sculpture.
For Sodbuster, the conservation treatment began with the fiberglass substrate. As one can imagine, the stifling summers and freezing winters of North Dakota are hard on outdoor works of art. Conditions like cracks and coating loss were spurred from moisture intrusion, extremes in temperature, and preexisting issues.
Areas to be treated were cleared with dry-ice solid carbon dioxide or CO2 blasting. The next step took Gwinner inside of the sculpture to repair the substrate and update the internal armature. Since Gwinner has past experience in fiberglass sculpture fabrication, he was able to perform the fiberglass repairs at the McKay Lodge Conservation lab facilities in Oberlin, Ohio. He also replaced the previous wood armature with a more dimensionally stable fiberglass structure.
With the structural integrity of the sculpture improved, cracking and losses on the surface needed to be addressed. These areas were removed to sound material; resulting vacancies were filled with a strong but flexible epoxy made to bond to the fiberglass. The fills were coated with a fiberglass filler then sanded so that the surface could be painted.
The next step for the conservation treatment of Luis Jiménez sculpture is arguably one of the most difficult: matching the color. While McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory has a talented conservation staff, we also employ the industrial equipment to further assist us in treatment decisions. For each area to be painted, Gwinner uses color swatches along with a 3M Sun Gun which mimics real daylight for color matching. Matching color using the same lighting conditions in which the sculpture will be viewed is critical. In addition, he also takes readings with a Rapidmatch X-5 spectrophotometer. Though this instrument can be used on its own to inform color decisions, it is used in tandem with PPG PaintManger Program software and paint mixing station.
McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory facilities house a state-of-the-art automotive paint mixing station created by PPG. The system provides thousands of paint colors that can be custom mixed and tinted to precisely replicate a color and finish. It allows Gwinner to match the artist’s colors in a precise, repeatable manner which saves tremendously on cost and time, especially considering the scale and sophistication of Jiménez ‘s sculpture.
Even with a near perfect color match possible, the skill and judgement of the conservator is still an important part of the treatment. Gwinner must carefully recreate the artist’s painting technique, blending restored areas seamlessly as possible with original sections of the sculpture.
That, however, is all we have for now. Check back in a few months when the treatment and reinstallation of Sodbuster is complete.