Monday, September 8, 2014

Hyena Project Part 3: The Sculpture

At first blush, hyenas resemble dogs with short hind legs. Upon closer inspection, the hyena's neck is longer, the face is different (especially the ears), and even the forelegs have a curious flexibility. As I welded the armature and began applying layer upon layer of clay, I found myself growing more and more fond of these subtle differences. The eyes of a hyena are also very expressive. Frankly, sculpting Frankie the Hyena turned out to be a lot of fun.

    To complete this commission I had to confront my own prejudices. What I found was a gift, for I will never look at hyenas the same way again. Now I can appreciate them for what they truly are: amazing creatures, superbly adapted to their lifestyle and habitats. 

 The life size sculpture is currently at the foundry. When cast in bronze, Frankie will stand atop a large boulder on the grounds of the Chattanooga Zoo, paying homage to a beloved resident and allowing generations of visitors to see hyenas in a new and favorable light.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hyena Project Part 2: Getting Started

Because I have already spent many hours watching hyenas in the wild, I could not quite justify a trip to Africa (believe me, I tried).
Picturing days filled with California sunshine and unlimited access, I settled on a week and a half at the San Diego Zoo. What I got when I arrived was five days of standing amid unprecedented rain and wind storms (in southern California!), with hyenas sleeping out of sight. When the sun finally appeared, the hyenas remained asleep and out of sight for most of each day. 
     Because they might awaken at any time (Ha!), I was honor-bound to stand with binoculars and sketching materials at the ready. For five? days. From open to close, I probably averaged 25 minutes of decent viewing each day. Several days provided less than 10 minutes! None the less, I returned home with several charcoal sketches and the detailed understanding of anatomy necessary to begin sculpting.    

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hyena project Part 1: the Commission

   It is not every day that I receive correspondence asking me to create a life-size African mammal, let alone a popularly reviled creature that most people seem to consider downright ugly.
    In popular myth, hyenas are portrayed as thieving cowards who only scavenge for food. Research has shown Spotted Hyenas are, in fact, major predators who frequently hunt animals many times their own size. As it turns out, lions often steal hyena kills. 
Hyenas have a unique physiognomy: from their sloping backs and stunted back legs that adapt them for highly efficient long distance running, to large, powerful necks which allow them to bring down large prey, and incredibly powerful jaws able to crush large bones, hyenas have evolved to fit a very specific niche in the food chain.
     In captivity, hand-raised hyenas can be amazingly gentle and affectionate. Many years ago, in Chattanooga, TN, a hyena was rescued from poor conditions to become a long-time resident. This much-beloved hyena's name was Frankie. The sculpture I was asked to create is a character study of Frankie, commissioned by a friend of the zoo who knew him well. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pack Trips!

      Only rarely do I invite people other than family members to accompany me into wild places. However, we have now organized not one, but two Pack Trips into Yellowstone's back country on horseback. Each trip lasted four nights and each produced wonderful memories, broad smiles, sore bodies, and a single sculpture.

      Who from the original trip could forget riding through remote forests preserved for the use of grizzly bears. Although we saw every type of bear sign imaginable, what stuck in my mind were the numerous long, deep vertical scratches high above eye level. The size and power necessary to create those markings on the trees along our path certainly raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
      On the third night I slept out under the stars and when I opened my eyes at sunrise, the first thing I saw was a moose wandering through camp. He was relatively young and svelte, with antlers still in velvet. He must have left quite an impression upon me: when others went fishing in the afternoon, I pulled out wire and wax and sculpted his likeness from memory.

     The second trip started out with laughter too: apparently my good friend Karen Wilson’s mother warned her never to go off into the woods alone with me. Although it sounds laughably ominous, the warning apparently originated from my reputation for close encounters with wildlife.  At any rate, when we rode into our first campsite there was a lot of work to be done. Karen and I volunteered to help, and were given the task of procuring water from a spring fed creek. This of course necessitated going off into the woods by ourselves. Thankfully, no bears attacked, but the ice was broken and we all enjoyed a wonderful trip. (And yes, Mom, she and all the other guests returned home safe and sound!)
      The very next morning, wildlife adventure came straight to us in the form of an immense bull bison who wandered through camp. He really was a magnificent old fellow, so I followed at a discreet distance and tried to draw his likeness when he lay down to rest near the Lamar river. Realizing he might stay awhile, I doubled back and got my sculpting supplies, intent on creating a bust of our impromptu guest. 
      I began sculpting his sleeping form as I hunkered down amongst fallen logs. After a while, it became apparent that I needed to see this bison's face from the front, so I carefully got up and maneuvered into position. Noting this movement and my insistent stare, he gradually woke up completely. Getting to his feet, the old bull turned away to graze on green grass. I, of course, followed. I still needed to be in front of him, yet this presented a challenge because I could not cross the swollen river nearby. I slowly maneuvered around as best I could, yet he did not care for my rude behavior and approached with murderous intent. Fortunately, several downed trees formed a natural barrier which I used to my advantage. Now the stage was set and we began a  slow motion dance: me sculpting and carefully maneuvering behind deadfall trees as necessary, the bison grazing peacefully yet angling towards me whenever I strayed too close. Somehow we managed to maintain this uneasy truce until I finished the wax portrait. By then we had circled back towards the campfire where everyone was gathered for dinner. Noting the immediate presence of more people, the imperious old bull decided to wander off in search of quieter pastures. My sculpture was done and it was time to eat dinner, but I was sad to see him go. I will never forget my long afternoon of sculpting and dancing with a magnificent bison.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Stories of the Creative Process: Wentai.

 I first met Wentai Kepera many years ago when my family visited a Maasai village called a manyata. Near the end of our visit, Lynn and the girls studied the beadwork and other handmade items for sale that women had laid out on blankets in the center of the manyata. I looked briefly, but saw few truly traditional items, so I stood back and waited patiently.
        After a few minutes, a village elder came to me and asked why I was not interested in purchasing anything. I told him I was only interested in traditional items: not Maasai key chains! (They don't traditionally have locks, and so no use for keys or key chains!) Once we understood one another, we had a good laugh and soon a friendship was born. 
        Wentai was raised in the Maasai Mara before tourism brought profound changes and totally new concepts to his people. He remembered the old ways and a few days after our first meeting, took it upon himself to walk the 5 kilometers to our tiny campsite. Wentai brought traditional items to show me and my family. He explained how and why they were used when he was a young man. We encouraged Wentai to tell us more, so he returned again and again over the course of the next several weeks. 
         Two years later, we were back in the Maasai Mara, camping again in the same spot for one month. Our friend Wentai resumed his visits; showing us how traditional sandals and drinking horns were made. As he worked with his hands, cutting and shaping sandals, I suddenly realized Wentai has an absolutely amazing face. I asked if he would return the next day and model for me. 
         My friend arrived at noon the next day (when the sun was straight overhead, his only sense of time), and I immediately set to work with feverish intensity. One hour later, dark clouds filled the sky and the temperature dropped precipitously. Suddenly, my wax became very hard and almost impossible to work. Lynn found a cooler, put hot water into water bottles and in a few minutes time I was back in business. Then it began to rain.
         At first we ignored the moisture, but as the heavens opened up and water began pouring from the sky, we moved operations into our tiny dining tent. Wentai sat, drinking tea while I worked on. As the afternoon progressed, I studied my friend with ever increasing intensity while my hands formed wax into his likeness. In order to step back and inspect my work, I was obliged to back out of the tent, into the pouring rain, and bend on one knee. After once or twice I barely even noticed. 

         Soon it was getting dark and time to finish up as best I could. Wentai rode home in our safari vehicle. I cleaned up and joined my family for dinner. The next morning, my hands were so sore and stiff I could barely fasten my shirt buttons. But, the sculpture was basically completed and I had a smile on my face.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mustang Project. How do you go about sculpting a monumental Mustang? Part V: Installation and unveiling

Rubber Mold removal.

Once I finished sculpting the Mustang in clay, it was time for the foundry to make a rubber mold and begin the lost-wax process. Casting any sculpture in bronze is a monumental undertaking and I will not try to explain it here. Suffice it to say: the Mustang's tail and mane presented many difficulties above and beyond the norm, but New Arts Foundry rose to the challenge and did a wonderful job.

 On installation day the monumental bronze Mustang arrived onsite atop a flatbed tractor trailer; everyone present was thrilled at the first glimpse of the finished sculpture!  However, shrouded in blankets as the crane lifted the sculpture high into the air, we never had a clear, unobstructed view of the finished work.   I would love to tell you that the holes were pre-drilled, we placed epoxy inside, and then simply lowered the sculpture into place. 

Bart checks the tail fit.

However, this was not the case. I arrived on site at 7:30 a.m. and was not able to leave until 11:00 p.m. It was a very, very long day, but at the end, the Mustang was secured atop his pedestal, and a giant wooden crate was lowered into place to hide him from prying eyes...

Dedication day! It began with a drum line and cheerleaders. The massive wooden crate was long gone and in its place was rainbow colored fabric whipping violently  in thirty mile per hour winds. Dignitaries from state and local governments were present alongside Stevenson University's top brass and other VIPs. Thank you's were given all around, a few short speeches were made, and then it was time to see if the wind would allow us to unveil the Mustang. None of us had yet seen it in the light of day.

 Even after all these years, I am still nervous when introducing a new sculpture. Will people like what I have done?  Will the wonderment and admiration I felt in the company of wild Mustangs be communicated in the finished sculpture? Have I done even a small measure of justice to these magnificent creatures? All these questions and many others floated through my mind as I grasped the multi-hued fabric and pulled. 

         With the help of students and VIPs, the fabric came away easily and billowed downward in the wind to reveal the sculpture.

There was a collective intake of breath, then oohs and aaas before enthusiastic applause spread throughout the crowd. The rest is all a blur. Photos and conversations followed one after another in rapid succession for the next three hours. I emerged dazed but happy. 

The dedication event was a wonderful gala introducing the bronze Mustang "Victory" to the students, faculty and staff of Stevenson University. 

Stevenson President Kevin Manning is interviewed

Bart, President Manning and the Girls Field Hockey Team


 May they and their descendants enjoy the sculpture for many generations to come.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mustang Project. How do you go about sculpting a monumental Mustang? Part IV: Building with Clay

Probably because I started my career sculpting wood with knives, chisels and rotary tools, today I sculpt using my bare hands whenever possible. I enjoy the tactile immediacy with my chosen medium and prefer the fluid effect achieved when  loose clay-work is cast in bronze.

 As the Mustang began taking shape, I continued to visualize the mass and movement of the horse while adding layer upon layer of clay. Much of my day was spent tapping into subconscious memories of mustangs, high desert sunlight, wind, the sounds of fighting stallions, and the smell of dust and sagebrush. These memories helped mentally transport me away from my temporary warehouse studio and back into the field. Wedging and applying clay provided my rhythm.

Whenever I was unsure how to proceed, I referenced Stubbs equine anatomy drawings, a half dozen or so of Becky's photographs, and of course my five foot tall Mustang in clay.     As days turned into weeks the Mustang looked more and more alive. I saved details of face and hooves until the anatomy and gesture were almost complete. When I added those details the sculpture came together and then it was time to slow down,to consider each and every stroke before application.

 How do you know when the sculpture is finished? That is an important question, and the answer is difficult to put into words. My method is to visualize what I want, look at the sculpture from all angles, and when I can not figure out how to make it better without ruining what is already there, I stop. I walk away, and if after two or three weeks I still can not find a way to make it better, then the sculpture is finished.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mustang Project. How do you go about sculpting a monumental Mustang? Part III: Bulking up the armature.

As you may or may not know, bronze sculptures do not spring fully-formed from my forehead.  Before a sculpture is finalized in bronze, it usually exists in both clay and wax, and even worse: as a negative, first in rubber and plaster, then in ceramic shell. Even the original clay version of a sculpture requires a great deal of work, especially for larger pieces.

Before adding clay to the completed armature, I use foam to pack the interior. This reduces the overall weight, and keeps the volume of clay to a manageable level. One and two- inch thick sheets of foam insulation are cut to shape, wrapped in tape, and then placed on the armature. I glue and screw these sheets together so they form one solid, lightweight mass. Then the sculpture is ready to receive clay.


Covering the armature and foam sheets with even a thin layer of clay is a big job. In order to rest my hands for the days ahead, Lynn organized a small crew of family and friends who worked all day - or until their hands were too sore to continue

Finally, the strange-looking beast is ready for me: after months of preparation, I am more than ready to launch into clay work.

 During this process, I work with manic energy as the sculpture slowly emerges from the armature. I take a bucket of warm clay, scoop out a softball sized chunk, squeeze it repeatedly, push it in place with a swiping motion, then repeat until each bucket is empty. In the early stages, I am simply trying to build mass where it is needed most. I go through bucket after bucket and at the end of the day I am frustrated that my arms and hands can take no more.  It becomes my own multi-day sporting event.    

Each  evening I return home utterly exhausted, but (almost always) with a smile on my face. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mustang Project. How do you go about sculpting a monumental Mustang. Part II: Inspired, the work begins...

The small wax maquette

     Before our journey to view wild mustangs began, I needed to present my sculpture concept to the president and staff of Stevenson University.  Therefore I made a small wax model, a maquette, to show what the monument could look like. They unanimously approved the design,  so I began an intermediate, five-foot tall version in clay.  Purposely, I left it incomplete, since I knew in my heart that what I learned in the Wyoming high desert would change how I perceived these animals.
     I was right! Mustangs are amazing: I knew that before I left, but I did not know how stunningly powerful and athletic they can be. I quickly realized a stallion in the wild is a very different creature from a gelding in a sanctuary.  As soon as I arrived home, I began adjusting the five-foot tall mustang to reflect what I had experienced in the high desert. 
The Five-foot Mustang in Clay.

    When the five-foot version seemed complete, I began moving into temporary studio space within an unused warehouse on Stevenson University's campus. There, I built a large platform on wheels,  and began the enlargement process for my monumental Mustang. 
    Every sculptor seems to have their own technique for enlarging sculptures. Mine is laborious, but simplicity itself. I start by finding points where the sculpture intersects the platform: by measuring from two sides, then multiplying each number by a quotient.  In order to enlarge my five-foot Mustang to twelve feet, I multiplied by 2.37 (using a solar-powered pocket calculator). Since I created my bases in proportion to one another, I have already laid the groundwork to add one more dimension: height. This allows me to find any point in space. By locating these points one at a time, I can weld steel pipe and rebar with confidence, building  a strong  framework  upon which I can apply clay.              
        This framework is called an armature.

My favorite test!
            Measuring, cutting, welding, and grinding, while clambering up ladders and scaffolding, consumed my days over the course of several weeks. Because there was no air-conditioning for the first two weeks, I gleefully told friends and relatives that I was losing weight on the "Mustang Diet program". Thankfully, I had the excitement of time recently spent in the company of wild Mustangs to keep me going.  The steel armature that emerged was strong enough for me to hang from even the nose without significant deflection. 

 Then I began to add thick aluminum wire for the horse's mane and tail. 



     Many sculptors choose to have enlarged armatures made by someone else. More and more, sculptors are even turning to digital enlargement services. I do the work myself because the entire time I am building the armature, I am visualizing anatomy: bones, muscles and their relationships as the figure moves. All that labor while continually visualizing the underpinnings of the finished sculpture seems to build in me an eagerness. It is like slowly drawing a bow and arrow: by the time I am finished with the armature, the bow is under full tension and the arrow ready to be launched. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mustang Project. How do you go about sculpting a monumental Mustang?

                          Photo copyright: RJWalter

  Part of the reason I love my job so much: it requires a great deal of time in the company of wild animals. Whenever we receive a sculpture commission, the first item on my agenda is research: this means days, weeks, or even months in the field. Yes, I could snap photos and be back in the studio in short order, but I am most concerned with coming to understand my subjects as thoroughly as possible. Not only do I want to understand nuances of their physical anatomy, I want to understand subtleties of their behavior, how they move, and even their individual personalities. 
    Having only glimpsed wild Mustangs prior to 2013, I knew I faced a steep learning curve. I immediately began volunteering at a local horse breeder's barn in order to spend time with horses, (Yes, that means lots of manure). Then in March, I took the first of four trips down to Legacy Mustang Rescue 
(www.ilovemustangs.orgoutside Charlottesville, VA.  Jamie and Craig Dodson gave me unparalleled access to their mustangs, and I learned a great deal.

                                                        Photo Copyright: RJWalter
    Finally in May I travelled to northern Wyoming to study free ranging Mustangs. My daughter, Becky and I concentrated our efforts on the McCullough Peaks herd - located on government land east of Cody, WY.  Here, the Mustangs thrive - largely due to careful guardianship by land manager Tricia Hatley, who works for the BLM. Tricia introduced us to three bands of Mustangs, and acquainted us with their history. She also showed us a few of the dirt tracks criss-crossing thousands of acres. Then we were on our own.
     Becky and I quickly adopted a technique our family has used in Africa with great success: we positioned ourselves far in front of the animals and simply let them come to us. By sitting quietly on the high desert in plain sight, we became both interesting and non threatening to the Mustangs. They approached out of curiosity,  and then largely ignored us. 

                                                           Photo copyright: RJWalter
  Spring was in the air, so stallions soon began rearing up with flailing hooves and chasing one another on all sides of us. This was exactly what I needed for my sculpture. It was exciting and absolutely fantastic! The only real distraction: the Mustangs soon ignored us so thoroughly that I sometimes had to move five or ten feet out of the way, to avoid being body-slammed or hit by flailing hooves. 
                                                            Photo copyright: RJWalter

We put in long hours each day, hiked many miles, ate a lot of PB&J sandwiches, drank gallons of water, and simply could not stop smiling. The Mustangs and the harsh landscape they inhabit thoroughly charmed us. We felt privileged to be there. After two weeks, Becky and I wanted nothing more than to stay in the high desert indefinitely; however, I needed to get back to Maryland in order to begin translating what I  had learned into sculpture. 

                                                           Photo copyright: RJWalter