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