Kuan Yin of The Magic Box

The last two months has seen a flurry of studio activity as we close in on the date to install the Magic Box show in the Moss-Thorns Gallery at Fort Hays State University.  The last major piece to be built for the show is a large-scale copy of the Kuan Yin that is featured in the fourth video, The Black Church. This piece will accompany the entire edited video in the last space in the installation and in many ways is the anchor for the show. I see it as an opportunity to flip the scale of the viewer in the gallery and reinforce the image of the viewer themselves within the context of the space, especially as it relates to the cell phone interaction that will be integral to the experience of the show. for this reason as well as my real and abiding love of the work it is based on we have been determined to do a good job on this piece.IMG_9701

The first step was to build the easel. Gabe accomplished this using an old solid core door, a 4×4 and some canvas we has in the studio from the Art Center days. The tech is really costing quite a bit for this show so keeping costs down in other areas has been important over the last year. The easel was heavy and difficult to move which was a good thing considering the amount of clay that would need to be stacked on it.

IMG_9719

The next step was for Gabe to use his observational super powers to scale up the figurine on the canvas so we would have a frame-work for stacking the clay.

IMG_9721

While Gabe worked on that, I prepped the clay for stacking. To build the piece I used a highbred technique of the brick sculpture I used to do with Jarrett Pottery and the large solid sculpture techniques learned during the Beth Cavener workshop in January of 2015. (see post here) The piece required about 550 lbs of clay, which I shaped roughly into bricks straight from the extruded blocks from the clay factory.  I used talc between the bricks to prevent sticking, which turned out to be mistake in a way as I changed my ideas for taking the piece apart to more reflect Cavener’s technique rather than the brick sculpture I had done in the past. The best choice would have been to work for solid attachment of the units to each other as I built the wall.  It would have saved valuable time in the disassembly and hollowing stage. For clay I chose the cost saving measure again. We were still sitting on about half a ton of Laguna’s Whitestone, which is really the last clay I would have chosen given the problems we’ve had in the past with it, but it’s what we had and the dates are approaching quickly so we went with it. Because of this choice we anticipate a good deal of epoxy after firing, with that in mind we will be using a fired and cold approach to the surface.

IMG_9725

Gabe, in the mean time, worked on a second outline, on paper this time, that could lay over the stacked clay and allow us to map in the essential elements.  After that it was a matter of stacking the clay, brick by brick.

IMG_9727 IMG_9729 IMG_9733

On this last image you can see the outline that was traced onto the clay using the second, paper drawing. The clay was very wet here and carving for detail was not possible, so for the first week or so only crude shaping and removal was possible.

IMG_9738 IMG_9754 IMG_9759

At this point the form was basically mapped and fine detail could be added. While the piece was based on the figurine, the scale shift required a greater attention to detail that the small piece could not support.  These changes are most apparent in the folds of the fabric.IMG_9774 IMG_9785

You can see in the above image that the clay was really pulling apart, which made finishing imperative. The last section to be tackled was the head.

IMG_9803 IMG_9806

I did return later and add material to a few places, the knee and the nose, brow and chin most notably. This is the face before the additions.

IMG_9808

The additions to the face were made after the piece was cut away from the larger whole. In this image the “brick” separations are clearly visible. The first step in the deconstruction phase was to attach the bricks together.  Once this was complete and the attachments had time to set, the entire section was flipped on the foam and carved out from the back to make firing possible as the density of this clay will not allow solid firing as brick does.

IMG_9809 IMG_9811

Once the pieces were attached and hollowed out they were sculpted and finished. The remaining sections stayed on the easel as I worked.  After a while the pieces became so dry on the canvas backing of the easel that the whole thing had to come down and be more thoroughly wrapped so they would last while I worked. It took about a month the finish the disassembly.

IMG_9870

After hollowing and attaching, part of the finishing process involved placing each section on a waster slab and then resurfacing with steel wool to remove the making texture from the forms.

IMG_9976

The last step was to wash the sections with a red iron oxide wash that will be sanded back a bit before these pieces are loaded into the kiln in a couple of weeks. Reassembly and cold finishing to follow.

Workshop with Beth Cavener

This January 2015 FHSU hosted a workshop with Beth Cavener, an artist that I have had a serious art crush on since first seeing her work years ago. That piece, titles A Rush of Blood to the Head is still tremendously influential to my work and aspiration as an artist.  It can be viewed here:

http://www.followtheblackrabbit.com/gallery/a-rush-of-blood-to-the-head-2/

I have continued following her work and she has been the standard both for success and quality for myself as an artist. The workshop was then something that I looked forward to tremendously.

Before I begin discussing my experience I must clarify that I was very sick the entire time I was in Kansas, falling ill with the flu a few days before leaving and staying ill the entire time, that surly impacted my feelings. Another caveat was a major mental health diagnosis I received  just before leaving that left me feeling terrified and deeply constrained. So it was through this filter that I went to meet my art hero/crush.

First I must say that it was truly the most expansive and informative workshop I’ve ever attended. Her technique is radical and her approach is methodical and meticulous, it is no surprise that she has been so successful. In addition to her tremendous skill the work she has put in to every aspect of her career is astounding. She told stories of how her first showing experience in New York that was so ballsy and brilliant that I could barely cover my awe.

Her style of working is doubtless detailed in other places but I will give a brief summary. Her process begins with a series of sketches in clay.  These small studies are usually done in large numbers as a way to work through ideas and solve problems.  For this workshop she could only make one based on suggestions from the group.  We were large and engaged and there were many suggestions that came down to a vote.  through a somewhat democratic process she agreed to work with a wolf twisted in a rope.

IMG_7788

These models are done in oil clay so that they might stay workable and salvageable.  She rarely keeps these.  They are built solid using bamboo skewers as armature. At this point she is considering composition and posture and formulating the procedure for the armature for the full size piece which range from life-size, to much larger.

The armature for the large sculpture is made from gas pipe relying on 1/2″ pipe and a variety of connectors.

IMG_7782

The pipe shown here is not galvanized, which she prefers because it prevents corrosion, so these were wrapped in electrical tape to prevent that. The frame-work is screwed down to the floor or table and the structure is built with special attention to removing it when the sculpture is built. The most important aspect of this process is to remember that the frame is a chair for the clay rather than bones for an animal.  The clay must be supported from underneath for the most part.

IMG_7791

This structure was tried and edited many times to be sure it would suffice for the entire piece, some of the sculptures weigh many hundreds of pounds when they are in process.

Once the armature is built the clay is applied, first wrapping the pipe and then building in layers until the basic size is achieved.

IMG_7815

The legs are supported by dowels wrapped in electrical tape and jointed so that the body can be manipulated as it is built.

IMG_7828

Things like tails and ears that can be relied on to create emotion are added last or even after firing so that they cannot be relied upon.

IMG_7843

Once the piece is relatively finished it is cut apart, piece by piece and hollowed out, then reattached in sections and fired.

The sculpting part of this technique is quick and expressive, the restructuring and hollowing is slow and meticulous.  In the end, every surface, including those impossible to see have been finished to her own anatomical perfection.

This process was detailed in slide shows that document many of her favorite pieces including A Rush of Blood to the Head which was wonderful to see.

As I mentioned earlier we were a very large group and asked a load of questions. She was very generous in answering all of these distractions and more revealing much about her self and her process as she worked. As a result she was not happy with the progress she was able to make on the piece.  By the end of the workshop she asked that we not share images of the work but especially not of her.  I have honored her wishes not be shown in the images but not her request not to have the work shown, partly because this is a post about my experience in this workshop and partly for reasons I will now elaborate.

Throughout the days of the workshop Beth was incredibly candid about herself, her process and her struggles both as a person and an artist.  She seemed to make great connection with many of the students and their work, not however with me.  Likely she was put off by my fan girl shimmer, that while i did try to restrain it, could only have been obvious and possibly for reasons I have mentioned before, I was ill and very caught up in my own mental health issues and so may not have been available for connection. So then in spite of my attempts I felt very much unacceptable to this person that I admired so much.

Because of this I was determined not to write about this experience. both to protect her and myself for I felt very much exposed and did not want to risk her displeasure, still fawning on some sad level, and so the experience ended.  I was left to wonder what the students who did connect had that I lacked and if there was something I was fundamentally lacking that would prevent me from ever achieving the success of my idol and those class mates that were acceptable to the higher power that an internationally known and hugely talented artist represented.

I did attempt the technique but as I work at such a small-scale for the animals of the Magic Box that it was largely inappropriate.  Still, I did manage a pose for Brittany the unicorn that I have not been able to pull off before. So then after so much anticipation I left the workshop drained and exhausted, feeling less able than I had in many years to achieve the moderate success that I have worked toward.

And so it remained, I would think of this post often but could not find a way to write about the experience in a way that would be meaningful to myself and my readers as well.  In fact, this dilemma seemed to halt the blog all together, as those of you who read regularly will have noticed. Yet I was confident that time would reveal a way to relate the experience and perhaps relieve many pressures of being correct and acceptable that is such a difficult part of life as an artist.

And so that opportunity finally came today through one of my many Facebook clay groups.  I found a video, an interview with Beth that I can’t imagine her having made when we met several months ago.  It is a beautiful film that describes her process, her work and her struggles in a way that was so very revealing.

An Interview With Artist Beth Cavener Who Captures Human Emotions Through Sculpted Stoneware Animals

I have no wish to detail my mental process at seeing her expose herself and her insecurities and her work for the camera, but it is sufficient to say that I was moved by her courage to do so and by the very similarities that seem to so distress me in January.

The experience did not produce a great patron or helper as I may have hoped in my fantasy before meeting, but a teacher, a true teacher, with the power to reveal one of the fundamental truths of life in the arts.  The truth of the constant self exposure that is required to survive the process of show entries and openings combined with a process of exposing ones self through work that digs into the soul every day.

I admire her more than ever, yet I no longer feel the art crush that I used to. This is obviously desirable, allowing her to be a person, complex and rich and myself also, with all of my great talents and imperfections.

I won’t try to assist her or do further workshops or any other absurd fantasy that occurred to me in the time of not being acceptable in January but she will always be held in great esteem and gratitude for showing me that even the greatest artists are people as myself, complex and conflicted.

Please look her up, her website is gorgeous and so is her work.

http://www.followtheblackrabbit.com