Warning: Several artists have suggested I’m doing myself a disservice by describing my (many) artistic mistakes in this blog, and my recent jury experiences suggest they might be right. OTOH, this blog has been an invaluable reference for me, and if I stop talking about my artistic dead ends and blunders I’m gonna lose that. So, apologies, but this is a post about a particularly looong project that taught me a lot. Sorry about that.
My studio probably holds the world record for incomplete projects, which drives some folk nuts. “If you’d ever FINISH this one, it’d be wonderful,” they say coaxingly (through gritted teeth), “So…FINISH it!”
Of course they’re right. Unfinished work certainly isn’t gonna help me gallery-wise. But I’m learning that sculpture only gets finished when it’s ready to be finished, for a lotta reasons.
I may need to improve my skills so I can match reality with vision. I may have run into a technical snag that needs rumination. I may need special equipment.
Or…I get well into execution and suddenly have a radically different vision of where this SHOULD have gone. So I put it aside until frustration dissipates and I have enough time and energy to start over.
For all those reasons my most recent work, SHOUT, took almost three years.
SHOUT started as a simple negative-space addition to the base of a boat-shaped bowl mold. It was supposed to be an Oregon mountain range, but Mt. St. Helens mutated into an open mouth, Mt. Hood became a nose…and all of a sudden I was sculpting a face. The face got angrier, escaped from the bowl and turned into an exercise in perspective, as well as a visualization experiment.
At that point (above), I took a good look at what was then called ShoutingMan, and realized he was spewing a helluva lot of energy to nowhere in particular. I wondered what he’d do with a target, and added a second head: RagingMan.
I cast both heads in BE’s Rhubarb Pink-Green Shift with spears of BE’s transparent red sheet glass. I love the color changes of Rhubarb–you get elusive accent colors wherever there’s a steeply angled thickness change.
I thought it worked well. I’d intended for the faces to kind of jigsaw-puzzle fit into each other. The resulting interaction and negative space between them was strong, but RagingMan wasn’t really raging, he was a foil for his companion. I started calling the second figure “The Reactor.”
ShoutingMan was originally designed to sit flat on a pedestal as if emerging from the base, mouth shouting up. The Reactor changed those plans; I tried suspending him over ShoutingMan, tried positioning them in a simple iron frame…nothing looked right.
I’d been ditzing around with a sea of sensuous, snaky glass limbs as a floor installation; it occurred to me that the heads might look cool sitting on top of them. Getting the figures up onto flexible bodies would give them more importance, and would also let me play with positioning them anywhere in 3D space, providing changing perspectives as you moved around them. Besides, humans have an instinctive fright response to snaky long shapes, which fit perfectly with my intent.
A word on SHOUT’s intent
It didn’t occur to me until The Reactor’s clay model was almost finished that I was caricaturing a domestic violence situation I’d run into years ago. (Weird how your fingers sculpt this stuff long before your brain realizes what’s going on…)
What had shocked me at the time was the extreme mindlessness involved, as if the rest of the aggressor’s brain had shut down and only his primitive animal cortex was left. He seemed to have no conscious thought, could barely form intelligible words; he was overwhelmed with a need to fire raging, exploding energy into his target.
I normally talked through problems. In this situation, when I understood that reason was impossible, it literally terrified me.
The SHOUT heads became an attempt to visually map that rage and its response using thickness and color. The energy concentrates around ShoutingMan’s cheeks, where the glass is thick and darkly colored; the forehead, missing a brain, is startlingly thin and transparent.
I drew bodies onto head images in Photoshop (right), tried several different positions and settled on a close, in-your-face position. I decided to give them clear glass bodies so the heads would seem to float.
I had trouble visualizing how the heads should sit, though, and decided to cast prototypes. Good thing; I ran into one technical problem after another that probably wouldn’t have been solved any other way.
Equipment limitations. I usually cast hollow, bas-relief sculpture not because I want to, but because my Skutt bathtub kiln is only 13 inches deep. That type of sculpture has a flat, featureless back that lets me eliminate height-stealing glass reservoirs and cast open-faced.
SHOUT, though, would be tall (26 inches high), of solid glass sculpted in all three dimensions and with a number of compound curves. To stay transparent, I’d need to flow glass into the mold from an external reservoir. The reservoir would need at least six inches; in my kiln, that means I’ve got a working vertical of only about five or six inches.
Ideally, I’d have cast this piece almost completely vertical, and upside down, putting the reservoir on the only flat and featureless area, the base. But that way, even angling the molds as steeply as I dared, I’d need a kiln roughly 30 inches deep. This wasn’t the first time I’d conceived of something that literally wouldn’t fit into the kiln–I’ve shelf after shelf of similar projects, fully refined waxes ready for investment.
So…scratch that idea. I experimented with angling the molds and configuring them for reservoirs on the side, but the compound angles and curves made it difficult to find positions that would (a) fit within that 13-inch limitation, (b) allow me to easily coldwork the reservoir area back into shape without borrowing expensive bandsaws and glass lathes and (c) permit the glass to flow downhill in all directions from the reservoir.
I finally compromised. I eliminated the glorious compound curves down the back of my first clay models, creating a reservoir that traveled down the entire length of the piece.
Not only did that ensure that glass could get to all parts of the mold, it also let me position different colors of glass in different sections: Rhubarb and small daggers of transparent BE Red in the head area, BE Crystal Clear along the body.
Too bad I didn’t much like the resulting casts (right), for a number of reasons.
- Clay in the glass. I’d modeled the “bodies” in Hanjiki porcelain, which needed to be removed from the finished mold. It was hard to reach all parts of the mold, and I unwittingly left a few small chunks of clay in inaccessible spots. The clay became embedded in the glass, ruining the piece. (You can see a chunk in The Reactor’s throat)
- Two-dimensional. Limiting the curves and angles had also limited my ability to work in 3D, apparently: All the interaction took place in the same plane. It was rather like looking at a two-dimensional piece with a front and back, but little or nothing from other angles.
- No real tension. I’d wanted over-the-top menace, matching what I’d experienced in real life. Facing the heads precisely together, at an almost perfect vertical, seemed to eliminate most of the tension. Yuck.
- Top-heavy. Physically, the figures would need significant support to stay upright, probably adhered to a heavy steel base. Permanently attaching long lengths of glass to a heavy piece of metal was a recipe for breakage; far better to level and weight the bottoms of the figures so they could stand on their own or with minimal support from a steel base. Besides, once I saw the cast figures, I realized that raging red heads floating on clear supports looked unbalanced and didn’t make sense.
- Transparent Red opacified. A minor but continual problem for me when casting with reds–they seem to opacify faster than any other color, which spoiled the clarity I was after.
- Backs looked out of place. Since the reservoirs had run down the backs, by necessity there was no detail at all in the back–just a flat, featureless surface. The figures’ stylized hair simply ended at the crown of the head and looked odd. The rest of the work was highly shaped and figured, making the backs look like a mistake. I could grind and sculpt them, but only within the straight plane.
Most of this stuff stemmed from the compromises I’d made in mold configuration. Most likely, my faithful Skutt bathtub kiln simply wasn’t the right kiln for the job. I needed to find a deep casting kiln.
Instead, I shelved the project for 18 months, thought about it, and learned. I occasionally updated/added to my wax models (at one point ShoutingMan had an undulating mohawk bigger than the whole rest of the piece, at left). And slowly, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
Bullseye came out with Burnt Scarlet billets that would (if I could figure out how to get the color to go ONLY in the head) give me the swirling anger I was looking for.
Glass foundry owner Hugh MacKay turned me onto glass “bondo,” a mixture of lard and beeswax that both serves as a disclosing wax (to find and fill in imperfections in a wax model) and lets you smoothly spackle the gaps in a broken or imperfect casting, invest and refire. Since it’s organic, it burns out cleanly in the kiln, leaving no trace.
I also built up my skills with inclusions. Instead of trying to cast difficult shapes and color placements in a single firing, you cast the impossible components separately, then incorporate them into your wax model. You invest the entire thing for a final fuse-together casting.
Bullseye’s BeCON sessions helped a lot; a discussion with the head tech from Nicholas Africano’s studio gave me insight into joining components, in effect massive inclusions, in a final firing. I got some mold-building tips from the Australians, chatted about kiln configurations with Dan Clayman, and revisited BE’s dual-kiln casting solution. I went home and tried my newfound knowledge on a few test castings, and started making plans.
I finally had everything to finish SHOUT. In my little bathtub kiln.
Since I’ve now broken 90% of the laws about short, interesting posts, I’ll end here. Stay tuned for the second post.