Soul Pole Stories: Conservation and Restoration

A section of the Soul Pole at the Douglass-Truth Branch of The Seattle Public Library
One of the figures carved in the Soul Pole. The sculpture was designed by Seattle Rotary Boys Club artists to represent 400 years of African American history in the United States.

As mentioned in our “first Soul Pole story,” the historic sculpture at the Library’s Douglass-Truth Branch in the Central District was deinstalled in 2021 so that it could undergo conservation work.

The goal was to preserve the piece so that it could be reinstalled at its original location at the corner of 23rd Avenue and E. Yesler Way, and available for the community to enjoy for decades to come.

The Library contracted with Artech Fine Art Services, an organization with extensive experience in restoration and preservation, to manage the project. They worked with Corine Landrieu of Landrieu Conservation, one of the Northwest’s top conservators.

A woman wearing a mask talking about a tall wooden sculpture called the Soul Pole
Conservationist Corine Landrieu explains her work on the Soul Pole, with a focus of preserving “the integrity of the object as much as possible.”

Now that the conservation work is complete and the Soul Pole will soon be reinstalled, we asked Corine Landrieu and Artech’s Kate Dawson to share highlights of the project, and what visitors will (and will not) notice about changes to the Soul Pole after it stands tall at the Douglass-Truth Branch once again, representing 400 years of African-American history.

How has the Soul Pole’s cultural importance informed your approach?

Kate Dawson: The Soul Pole’s cultural significance and its great value in the community informed the route that we took and, of course, the great care and amount of work that went into this project. Including a conservator like Corine was an important piece of that plan. Corine has worked on many projects with culturally significant objects.

We knew from the beginning that maintaining community access was a key goal – making sure that visitors could continue to see the Soul Pole outside Douglass-Truth and interact with it. So we were looking for that balance of preserving it in a way that it could still be interacted with in its original spot.

Can you summarize the work that was done?

Kate: After the Soul Pole was deinstalled by Artech, the piece was fumigated to stop insect activity and then stored at one of our facilities to fully dry. We worked with an arborist to do resistograph testing on the Soul Pole to pinpoint areas of damage by registering wood resistance to determine density and stability.

Using this testing as a guide, we worked with Corine to develop a work plan for conservation, including cleaning the pole, removing areas of damaged wood and repairing damaged areas. The Soul Pole was also treated to protect it from future insect exposure, as well as with a wood preservative.

You’ve emphasized that the focus of this project was primarily conservation, not restoration – what is the difference?

A section of the wooden artwork called the Soul Pole during the conservation process at Artech
The head of the Soul Pole, which needed more restoration than other areas.

Corine Landrieu: The difference between conservation and restoration is primarily the fact that conservation focuses on preserving the integrity of an object whereas restoration will focus more on restoring the object to its original look. In this particular instance, restoration was sometimes part of the conservation process.

For example, in the area of the head [at the top of the Soul Pole], the wood was quite deteriorated and there were some large gaps. So in addition to conserving this area we had to do restoration to prevent it from further disintegration when it would get exposed to the outdoor environment once again. The rotten wood was excavated, and after treating the wood with borates to deter insects and assist in the prevention of rot fungus, the remaining wood was treated with a deeply penetrating liquid epoxy to give it structural strength. I chose a type of epoxy often used in the marine context, which has a little more give and adjusts more easily to the contracting and expending of the wood in response to the environment. I also put in some wood shims, which provide more of the structure.

A section of the Soul Pole sculpture while undergoing conservation work
A detail of the 21-foot Soul Pole sculpture.

If we hadn’t done this work, the Soul Pole would have been threatened by further disintegration from the rainwater. This is an example of a blend of restoration and conservation.

We also did some restoration work on the hands and shoulders where rot had caused extensive losses.

The Soul Pole at the Douglass-Truth Branch
The Soul Pole has stood tall at the Douglass-Truth for almost 50 years.

An example of conservation is that you did not fill the deep cracks in the Soul Pole – can you tell us about that?

Corine: Yes, there are some very deep cracks in the Soul Pole. Those are normal – wood moves and cracks with weather and age. Based on the resistograph testing, it was determined that despite the cracks, there was enough strength in the core of the wood that it wouldn’t collapse. So we decided not to fill the cracks. And it’s also held together by the epoxy applied to the losses at the top and at the bottom of the Pole as it provides more structural support.

Another thing to be aware of is that the wood will continue to shift and move. If you fill the cracks with putty, it might get in the way of that natural movement and crack somewhere else.

A woman with glasses and a mask works on a section of a wooden sculpture.
Conservation intern Jennifer Beetem works on an area of the Soul Pole at the storage facility of Artech.

Much of the work you did will be invisible to visitors. What will be the visible changes, if any?

Corine: The biggest change is that we placed a zinc cap on the top of the Pole to protect it from rainwater. The zinc also acts as a fungicide. Also, when the Pole is first placed outside, visitors might also notice a slight change in the shade of the Pole. When we painted the fills, it was a fine dance to figure out exactly how to match the paint color, because when a wood preservative is applied, it makes the shade darker. But when summer comes, and the Soul Pole is exposed to sunshine, it will start to lighten.

How will the Soul Pole be maintained going forward? 

Kate: Ongoing stewardship is very important to keeping the objects we love safe in our communities. The Soul Pole will undergo annual maintenance, including cleaning, application of wood preservative and inspection of treatment areas for any signs of change.

Anything else you want to say about this project?

Kate: Our team has really enjoyed the amount of investment and interest in this project from the community and are thrilled to get to share more of the process of how we care for art and objects they see every day. It is important, and often unseen, part of our work.

More resources and information on the history of the Soul Pole and the Douglass-Truth Branch 

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