Sometimes great art depends on great partnerships. Gabe Wolff pushed this project into the realm of greatness today with his design and build of the internal skeleton of the life size free standing horse we are building in the coral outside our studio. In my mind I imagined some lashed together twig construction as I have very little wood working skill and was thinking that the clay would provide most of the structure of the piece. Realizing I was out of my depth with the project I asked for help. The best move all day for sure. Gabe spent most of the morning designing and then piecing the structure together and all of the afternoon on the build.
Here he is testing the designs ability to bear weight. This is half of the structure. The other half is mostly built and will be tied together tomorrow and then I will use my twig idea to build a rib cage and hips to hold the volume of the body, it will then be covered in chicken wire and then covered with the brick clay.
The play set also got some play. I am leaning toward an insurance agency play set. It seems the most absurd choice.
Today was all about preparing the corral for the work. The last horses moved out of the barn late last week so the spaces need much attention to be people ready. For the out door spaces we level, spread lime, then cover that with sand then wet the whole thing down to keep down the dust and seal the lime in a bit. The lime can burn skin and eyes but is important in killing bacteria and virus in the soil that may be living on the the horse poops. This has the added benefit of keeping the smell in check. After just 8 days on the barn makeover, the horse smell is barely detectable.
The other part of today was to begin to prepare the images for the installation. My plan is to paint horses on the iron panels of our corral in porcelain slip. The horse pictured here are in mare motel further east on the farm. All the enclosures were made in the same style of welded iron panels, that enclose the studio as well. My intention is to leave the heavy shadows created by the bars in the images of the horses on the panels. This will serve to abstract the images further and connect the current and previous uses of the space, threading the space together further.
The most recent work for the Monsters and the last for the show was the Keeper of the Dead. This is a piece, like the Lion, that waited for its purpose as the story evolved. This piece features asymmetrical horns, a detail that troubled me when I finished with the piece.
The original plan was to make three dead monsters for grouping of the Dead Ones, each at a different stage of exoskeletal growth. I unfortunately ran out of time to make the third dead one for the series before the show. I still wanted a grouping of three since the other monsters are centered around groups of two. I chose to bring the piece that came to be known as Keeper of the Dead to hold the number three in the grouping.
Unlike the Singer and the Hunter, the Keeper of the dead is chosen rather than born into a particular family. The deformity of the horns indicated a particular talent that is required for the duties of the keeper. The Bugs activity makes a particular sound in the bodies of the Dead Ones. This sound causes the keeper to have a type of hallucination, and this is how the will of the ancestors is interpreted.
The singer, with his roll as historian, the Hunter as person primarily responsible for the physical welfare of the clan and the Keeper who interprets the will of the ancestors, comprise the government of the Monsters. Decisions about location and movement, interaction with other clans and other factors impacting daily life of the clan are decided by this group.
The Dead Ones were planned from the first conception of the monster work. In considering biological rules for anything, an understanding of the processes of death is primary. The project changed a great deal however after the invention of the Bugs. As ancestor worshipers, the bodies of the dead monsters needed to retain an interest that would transcend a body on the ground, partly due to the monsters inability to make the art and monuments that surround the deaths of modern human ancestor worshipers.
The bugs provided the perfect vehicle for this idea. The bugs are in the bodies of the monsters from the time of their birth. During their lifetime the monsters secrete a chemical that suppresses the growth of the bugs. The bugs activity still is enough to create the exoskeleton of the monsters, which grows throughout their lifetime. In fact the exoskeleton is a common cause of death in aging monsters, having grown to large to allow breathing and eating. At the time of death the suppression of the bugs ceases and the bugs leave their microscopic state and move into their developing stage, becoming more Queen like the longer the host monster has been dead.
In addition to the growth of the bugs, the growth of the exoskeleton accelerates to create a hatchery of sorts for the next generation of the bugs, creating the floral quality of the bodies of the Dead Ones
The most recent work in the monster series began with the resolution of the loss of the Lion’s original partner. Rather than a victim, I wanted a partner that could match the direct gaze and strong stance of that sculpture. I chose for that roll a hunting partner.
Several questions were presented with this potential solution. First was the look of monster, how much of the original partner would carry forward into this one? The only element from that piece I lost that I felt was really too powerful to loose was the element I was unable to resolve, the bone arms. To resolve this in the clay I first began with an anatomy study. While I was not interested in super realism I wanted the bones to be clearly and immediately recognizable. As always I worked with Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck. Working out the bones and the attachment points plus managing dryness of the individual elements was the main challenge of the monster. After several lost attempts, I learned that both construction and attachment needed to happen at a stage dryer that I like to work. This meant that there was a small amount of post firing repair required before the piece could be painted.
This decision brought the next question immediately to the fore. Why the bones? What is the history of the piece or the necessity of the manipulation? To best answer this question a discussion of what the monsters hunt was necessary. As always this began with a chat with my collaborator and BFF, Gabe. How would the bone arm figure in to the hunt was the primary question. To solve this the prey animal had to be invented. The rules of the world dictated it be an exoskeletal animal that would move at a slower pace than the already slow monsters. Rather than designing an animal to fit the criteria of the world and the monster, the method of the kill and the food source was decided and the bug was designed around those rules.
The bone arm is the only tool in the monster world. She is the inheritor of one of the oldest families in the monster world. This family has been responsible for securing the food for the entire tribe and making marks on important individuals for many generations. Her father began to break the growing exoskeleton from the arm as it began to grow when she was a child. She was also paired with her lion at that time. The lion and hunter comprise a lifetime relationship which can be quite short. The spikes of the queen bugs are very poisonous and most hunting pairs only hunt for a limited time. Due to this mortality females are always chosen as hunters because they do not bear children.
The claw is used in the hunt as a pry tool. The hunt begins with the pair hidden along a game trail. Because of the limitations of speed in the world the pair rely on ambush. The Lion attacks first and breaks the poisonous spikes from the Queen Bug’s body. The Hunter then comes forward and pries the segments apart on the bugs body. The edible part is between the two layers of the bugs bodies. “Slip bugs” was the first title for them as I used gobs of the material, oozing from the joints of their bodies. A queen is killed by breaking her body open and then she is turned to reveal her bright yellow underside, to indicate to the rest of the tribe where there next meal will be found.
The Hunter holds a primary position in her tribe. With the Keeper of the dead and the Singer, she makes all important decisions of the monster tribe.
Another aspect to having a show in the Hoag studio is the opportunity to work in the space. This was both fun and challenging. I worked in the gallery during its open hours, except fridays and saturdays which are taken up with teaching.
The studio was well put together, consisting of a super sturdy salvaged table, the small slab roller from my permanent studio and lots of clay and tools. October was the shortest month in the cycle so far (from first Friday to last Monday) so my time for producing work was limited but I was diligent in being there and using my time so I actually produced quite a bit.
Originally I thought I would make a new pair of monsters to display at the second opening on the third Friday of the month, but I chose instead to work on Tengus, the crow demons that are the other consistent body of work I am involved with now. This choice had two purposes, first, I wanted to let the monsters rest a bit and take the opportunity to listen to the work and to what people said about it. Seeing it installed, in sequence both with the story and the time of making was a wonderful chance to review the work of the past year and take stock, consider more deeply the direction I would like the work to take in the future. Next I wanted to play a bit with suggestions from my school critique, seeing if I could make sense of ideas I felt were compelling.This is difficult to do with the monsters them selves as the rules for their world are in some ways set. Its not that rules cant be changed but I need a good reason to do so and also a solid direction, neither of which I felt I had.
The first piece I made was not a success. From build to paint surface the bird is forced and stilted, Primarily I think from the pressure of making work for an audience. Concentrated stretches of time were few and conversations were many, while this works while I am teaching, I found it much harder to produce my own work under these conditions. That being said, the Tengu (the largest and most complex of the series) led me to the series I made for the Own Your Own show that opens Friday. Informed by the problems I felt the large piece had, I made a series of much lighter and smaller birds for that show that turned out very well. Those were also produced primarily in the Hoag Studio.
Here he is before paint.
The first opening of the show titled “monsters” opened last Friday the 5th of October. It was a very successful opening for me, nearly 100 people were in attendance and the work was very well received. There was a great mix of old friends and supporters and new people just getting acquainted with the the work. Openings for the Hoag studio go late so there was plenty of opportunity for long and intimate discussion, which makes an opening so worth while.
The stories lack of presence in the space was a challenge, and I wound up telling it more than I wished, which is good information for future shows of the work, the story must accompany the work.
The Lion is a piece that has gone through many changes since the first idea. Origionally I wanted to do a monster with a cat on its back, inspired by the purple monster with a bird on its head in “Singing and Listening”. After several sketches the idea was abandoned for impracticality with the making technique used in creating the work. Instead I chose to morph a monster with a cat. I studied the bodies of mountain lions for the model. The making process was thrilling for this piece and really changed how all future work was constructed. I learned a great deal about how to control the coiling slabs, and when it was finished I felt it was very successful.
For a partner I settled on a meeting moment. His original partner was probably the most beautiful monster of the group. Very tall and lean, she was caught a moment of surprise as if seeing the lion for the first time and being afraid. After the success and learning of the lion I chose a new way to build the leg-arms, a much more aggressive technique that sacrificed the stability of the long slab in the back for a slab on slab straight build. The arms were to heavy then to support their weight and dropped off while loading.
I decided to save the rest of the piece and build arms of another material. Looking at the other monsters it was decided that the rules for replacement had already been established with the baby, that they had a skeleton inside the exoskeleton and the replacement would be wooden bone arms. I spent a solid week hand carving humorous, radius and ulna from a hemlock handrail. It was difficult work.
The problem then remained how to secure them to the ceramic in a way that would ensure the life of the piece. Knowing the work was to be handled by others in its life as a gallery object, I wanted to be sure that it would need no special handling or set up. After several months of frustration I decided to edit the piece.
It was a difficult decision and I really mourned the loss of the pair for a while, thinking that the lion would not be paired. I therefore sent him to a show last month, thinking the piece complete. Pulling it out of the studio and putting it into its intended environment really caused me to see him with fresh eyes. I decided I would try another monster and really change the context of the relationship. For this second piece I wanted a partner rather than a victim, and so the hunters came to be. More notes on this pair coming soon.
The next pair in the series is titled Singing and Listening. It depicts the courtship of a young couple. This is a piece that has evolved a great deal in my thinking toward it. initially it was the beginning of a deep relationship that I was most interested, but I have been very curious about the role of singing in a world with no ears.
There are two ways that the story typically develops, first as a lead element in the making of a piece. I get an idea and build it, very straight forward. The second way is more interesting in that it leads more places. When sculpting I am focused on form and material primarily and forget the narrative that drives the piece. I did not intend to have a singing monster, but following the lead of the clay, found one anyway. The second piece was made in reaction to him, as a means of explaining him. It was during the build that I decided to have the horns be hearing organs.
This has worked deeply into the culture of the monster world. The singer holds an important place in the community. Lacking hands, writing or written language has never developed. All knowledge traditions are oral, the singer is the keeper of culture and history for his group. A young singer begins to train in memorization at an early age and typically recite the stories daily so that no fragment is lost. Despite this care change does occur over time. One of the many ways I am planning to record the stories of the monsters is in the songs. Presenting them like gospels of the bible would account for the difference in stories throughout time. It is in this way that I plan to tell the story of how we lost our hands and became monsters thousands of years ago.
The bird on the purple monsters head is another inconsistency that I have yet to understand. These early pieces were made before I had considered how large the world would grow. I may find a way to account for the bird being as unchanged as it is but in the end the piece may need to be remade.
This is the second piece created in the monster series, “Sleeping and Watching”. This piece was very important for moving the story forward. For many people this piece is pretty horrible, until I explain that the baby here is not dead but sleeping. Because of the horns and the body changes I needed a different way for the monsters to reproduce.
The first pair set a precedence for a shift in gender thinking. The piece that looks female is Gabe and the piece that looks male is Jenirae. I carried this idea further with this work in letting the males give birth. The baby rests in a segment of his fathers body which he separates when the baby is ready to be born. All monsters are born skeletal, the exoskeleton is excreted over the first few years of life and continues to grow throughout the life span of an individual.
As for the face of the father I have yet to understand the significance of his laking a mouth and nose and having instead that bony ridge. I have considered several explanations but none satisfies the rules of the world. The idea came from a sketch and it was important to use it at the time so I am sure I will find a satisfactory explanation for it eventually. Its actually great to have pieces of the work that I cant really understand. Its part of what keeps me so interested in this project.
The title for this piece also set rules for the growth of the project. Truly the work is about human relationships but in titling the piece I began to consider that they also represent interior relationships. There are always parts of ourselves that sleep and others that watch. The title is meant to point to this.