Building the Black Church

The design of the last set piece of the Magic Box project was immensely important to the look and feel of the entire project.  This element and accompanying video is the culmination of our learning and focus on a project over two years in the making.  While the piece must work well with all those that came before, It must also reflect the inevitable learning that accompanies work of so much duration and focus.

As with the building for “The Empty Room”,  “The Black Church” was based on a building in our home town Pueblo, Colorado, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. While we considered many church designs for the project, we went with the cathedral because of its classical anatomy and ties to art history, which is an important element of the last video.

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We began by photographing the building.  The main challenge in “sampling” a building like this is discovering how much of the original to stay true to and how much to simplify and modify. To help make these determinations I did an extensive series of drawings, to both see the building fully and to determine the essential elements. In the initial planning stage, before the drawings, I imagined holding a large amount of the detail, feeling that was an essential part of the beauty of the building.

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The slow and deliberate process of drawing the church again and again over a period of weeks helped me to understand the soul of the building, the essential nature of the proportion and what that communicates to those on the sidewalk or inside the structure. By the end of the drawing process I was stripping away the detail and focused on the classical structure.

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From the drawing step, our building was designed, rather than the lengthy process of constructing plaster molds for each section, a heavy watercolor paper was used. This step cut at least 4 weeks from the build which allowed the full project to be completed within the semester.

For the build I broke the structure into four sections, the front section, or Facade and narthex, was built first. This allowed the rules for construction to be set on a relatively small and simple piece and to test the scale of the building against the existing works in the series and to ensure continuity of the installation. Rather than the Laguna’s whitestone that we built the empty room house with, we returned to Laguna’s soldate, a body that we have used for years with success. This decision completely solved the major mid slab cracking issues that had been such a problem with so much of the early construction. Another modification of the build  was to  let the slabs set up several days before assembly. This let the individual units do most of their drying and shrinking before they came together which reduced the amount of stress placed on each piece.

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The second section built was the naive, this section was modified from its proportion in the original building so that we could focus the filming in this section.  Because of the size modification, the roof became problematic, columns were set into the mid center of the hall to hold a sort of half ceiling. This would serve the dual purpose of holding a multi media roof that would be constructed post firing and hide the lighting system for the enclosed structure. The decision to go without decoration or windows on the building affirmed itself as the structure grew.  The exterior and the interior were beginning to be understood as separate realms.  the exterior was to exude imposing darkness and mystery in addition to be immediately recognizable as a holy or sacred place. The interior was to evoke a cave, a hidden space not easily accessible from the outside.

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The third piece was the transept. For the long roof section of this unit a sort of joist was constructed from the side wall panel pieces.

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The last piece was the choir. This was the both the smallest and most complex of the sections.

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Once all the sections were complete, they could be placed together to make decisions about the placement and shape of the passage that would span the whole interior.

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Once the interior was opened it was coated in whitestone slip, to tie it to the earlier buildings and to enhance the cave feeling for the interior shots for filming. During construction of each section a waster slab was placed beneath to limit drying and firing stress. The building was then covered and allowed to dry over several weeks.

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Once the units were dried and fired to cone 06 they were again assembled to assess the warping that took place through the long process of clay to ceramic. While we did have markedly better results with this building, each section did move throughout this time, a solution was then sought to fill the gaps between the sections that would allow light to penetrate into the building. Several solutions were considered for this but in the end we decided on vinyl  joint compound, this substance starts very soft and plastic like clay and would dry very hard to allow the building to be handled as it moves from show to show.  The first step for this was to shrink-wrap the first and third sections so that the compound would only go on  section two and four, minimizing both handling stress and cleanup. Each section was then masked for spray paint.

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The process of application and sanding back the material had to be done through several  times before we were satisfied with the fit. The visible sides were then textured to match the ceramic.

Painting was two coats of semi-gloss black spray paint with an additional two coats of a matte clear finish, this had to be tuned up several times through the finishing as the joint compound was very messy when it had to be manipulated. The interior was largely left alone, but some of the ground bisque clay used on the interior was mixed with acrylic to cover epoxy fill and to allow the heavy texture to be picked up by the camera during filming.

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Once the surface was finished, it was then time to install the lights. small battery-powered LED’s were used, hot glued into position in the roof sections using the joint compound to hide the cord running through the walls and down through the joints into a pedestal built to house them. Initially my intent was to light the interior with fire, but having ruled this impractical from a build and display standpoint,  we opted for half flashing lights.  Though labeled as the same light, we found the flashing lights had a very different temperature from the non blinkers so I applied an acrylic wash to warm up the cooler toned lights.

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Following the placement of the lights, the god tiles were epoxyed into place since their shape and the texture of the walls would not allow them to be simply placed and stay where they needed to be.

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Gabe supplied the finishing touches to the piece, first the multi media roof was constructed of similar materials as the additions to the ceramic. His intent for the addition was that it not draw attention to itself yet compliment the overall feeling of the exterior of the building.

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All these elements unite to form what we believe is an incredibly strong piece that will anchor the gallery presence of the entire installation. The last element added was subtle decoration to the exterior of the church. Gabe executed to scale, tags in black marker around the back and sides of the building. These additions tie the piece into the overall intent and work of the studio and also reward the careful viewer looking for the details that are present throughout the installation.church tag 2church tags 1

Detail and subtlety become the focus of this object, the only one in the group with no magic boxes and aside from lights no dependence on technology. This piece becomes a resting place in the work to contemplate the various layers of meaning in the Magic Box installation and video series.

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Process Oriented

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As the breeding season has been winding down, we have finally been able to give the next house in the Magic Box project some serious attention.  The outline for the script has been done about a month, which is a huge advantage in that we can solve problems in the building before it is built.  We chose to use a building from our city, Pueblo Colorado, for our model.  This is 230 Union Ave, likely built in the early 1900’s, along with most of the architecture in that area of town.

Once the building was chosen and photos taken, the next task was to simplify it and choose details that would carry forward to the model.IMG_5965

This quick sketch done at my kids karate class was the beginning of the process.  We have several needs as we design these buildings.  For me, the first priority is the art and craft of the ceramic object, I want the work to be complex and compelling.  Strong attention to details give the work an overall feeling of mastery and solid construction allows the piece to survive its constant handling.  Gabe’s top priority is its function as a film set.  Careful attention is given to the window and door openings for camera access and the movement of the characters within the space.  The object has to serve the story as well, this three-story building has a restaurant on the first floor, which will require a larger cast and more furniture and so must be somewhat larger.

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We used cardboard models to conceptualize the interior space, especially the stairs and furniture placement, which will be a complex problem.

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Next ,was to make scale drawings of all of the individual pieces to be used in the construction of press molds, which are used to ensure uniformity of each element so precise fit can be achieved.  My discovery of graph paper has been a tremendous help in this process.  I’m spending a fraction of the time on this process compared to past projects.

This conceptual stage is possibly the most difficult in collaboration because there is no physical object to discuss.  To get around this Gabe suggested we build the entire piece in card board so that the details can be clearly understood by both of us, which allows us to work effectively and eliminates the feeling of wasted time on un-communicated ideas.

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Our primary consideration in the early part of this process was to work out details of the windows and doors so the brick texture can be applied correctly, but it has been a hugely useful tool and we are continuing to use it to consider engineering and aesthetic questions as they arise.  Today, Gabe finished the roof detail, which really begins to pull the building together.

A note to non ceramists, all the size dimensions are wet, clay shrinks throughout its drying and firing process.   Shrinkage has been calculated at approx. 12% for the clay body we are using for this piece, making  the finished house somewhat smaller than shown.

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The Magic Box

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Though the video was completed in May, we have done very little to share and promote it beyond our Facebook circle.  Preparing the work for our first major show entry has motivated us to begin sharing in earnest.  Here we share the video and a brief artist statement that accompanies the work.  If you are interested in learning about the project, we have blogged it extensively since October of last year.

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Foxy-Wolff is an art collaborative featuring artists Gabe Wolff and Kate Fox. The focus of our work is in uniting the oldest forms of art (ceramic) with the newest (digital technology) into works that honor both history and craft tradition, while at the same time exploring contemporary life and culture in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

The Magic Box project is inspired by toys and explores the lives of ceramic figurines as the Magic Box influences them. Central to this work is a story of misplaced desire and addiction, and one squid’s attempt to save his relationship and understand his world.

The ceramic objects are central to a project that includes technology within, in the form of touch screen portable devices and technology without, in the form of a video that uses the house and its characters as the set and actors.

 

Video Production for Magic Box

IMG_5298As stated earlier, the script was begun in early December.   The final edit was finished in early April. It has been the centerpiece of the building effort to see this film to completion. It was not however the only piece of preparation that had to be done. Early this spring we began pulling together the structure of the set. We began at a local scrap yard owned by a client. She let us sort through the stainless steel and aluminum pile in exchange for a trade for classes for her girls. From the pile we pulled rejects from a company that makes shower surrounds and stainless conduit housing. We were working from a design of Gabe’s, that in the early stages we were hoping to make portable for workshop teaching in the future. We had to abandon this plan due to time constraints, but the drawings and materials are gathered and I am sure that the portable model will be built when we have more time.

With the completion of the script we were able to record the audio for the film. We wanted this early so that we would have the audio to use as a sort of road map for the filming. The biggest challenge here was to find the voices for each of the characters. We wanted to do all the voices ourselves for several reasons. One of the most important was our focus on a complete professional result for the film. We knew we would be willing to stay with the process until each piece was perfect. The other was knowing that this will be a four film cycle. Loosing an actor, three films in is such a difficult hurtle to overcome, by making the voices and characters ourselves, we do our best to avoid this.

photo 1The recording took several days as we read, edited the script and tuned the performance to get the finished voice audio that we would need. Once the recording was complete, Gabe began editing the music and the voices together to form that rough draft. Those are his words. The result of the several days of editing between the Cubase software for music and voice and the iMovie program for compiling and layering the audio seemed a bit magical. It produced a beautiful audio version of the project that allowed the black and white script to breathe and begin to evoke the emotion that I imagined for the characters. Five original songs were created for each character or situation and then edited into a score format for the short film. Picket Line War, Trapped, The stone Woman, Curiosity, and Jeff’s Mind were created in house with the Cubase software and Garage band.photo 4 copy

Every part of the preparation happened on top of all the other things that happened this semester. So amid the web page development and the editing and the new gig at the community college, the set preparations continued. We used the 1 1/2” flexible natural gas conduit in a large half circle 30 feet around on top, suspended from the steel frame on the ceiling that is a part of the barns agricultural history, and on bottom, screwed onto the heavy stall matts and reinforced with a steel braces designed and created by Gabe to reinforce the structure to allow the large piece of canvas to be stretched between the two conduits. Pockets were sewn into the top and bottom of the canvas to allow the conduit to be threaded through and then stretched using zip ties and bungees. Lighting was the next critical issue to solve. Gabe chose a daylight LED bulb and rigged the light array to a dimmer switch so that the day and night passage of time would be possible.photo 1photo 3  photo 2

As soon as the set, including a reinforced pedestal was built and lit, we were ready for filming. To make this possible we needed a way to move the figurines without having our hands show in the film. To solve this we made slides that would glide on the unglazed surface of the floors of the house without scaring that surface or allowing the figures to fall as they are being drug around the set, as many of them, especially the squids, are top heavy. To make the slides, we used a heavy clear plastic used for document display and tied a light weight but strong fishing line to holes drilled in on four corners. The ends were tied to color coded dowels so that multiple strings hanging together could be differentiated. The operation of the slides in the set was a bit like operating a marionette. The priority was to hide this manipulation throughout filming as much as possible.

The filming itself relied on playing the audio and filming just what we needed for each scene. We generally filmed 2 or 3 angles for each so to that the immovable figurines could feel more active on the screen. We used monitors to better view the camera in action. Here Gabe is checking the light levels and setting the manual focus, which had to be used extensively to control the shots. IMG_5431

The end of the filming is the beginning of the editing, which is another process that takes time. At this writing the film is about 98% finished. It is the perfect mixture of artful mystery and fairy tale. There are sections, following the camera closely up the stair case that make me feel I need another bone in my neck to properly follow the movement, and scenes in the dark with silhouettes of the squid heads with bright points of shine off the glazes that have the character of a dream. Yet it is paced in the classic formula, wishes, gold and three guesses. The mysterious supernatural figure in the attic oversees the world and it is unclear if she is a helper or the cause of all the trouble.

Bringing the script to life illuminated the ideas I intended and revealed deeper and older story telling devices and symbols that I did not realize were there. This is the essence of storytelling and art making. To put forth our knowledge and ideas, to give those things every bit of ourselves and then to be granted gifts in return. In this way, story and art are alive, as responsive and intelligent as a dear friend, whispering encouragement and demanding endurance.

 

 

Script and Squids

Once the body of the doll house was finished,  we needed a story.  Initially I wanted this film to center around gender identity issues, and the first characters were chosen as a vehicle for this idea.  The story of course has evolved beyond the first basic idea but Ted and Jeff, the couple up stairs, and Bob the unicorn made it through the editing process to the actual making.  I don’t want to say too much about the story because i want the film to speak for itself, but each of the characters is struggling with a desire that cannot be fulfilled.  This could have been done with a couple of any biological make up certainly, but leaving this a gay couple allows us to avoid a conversation about traditional gender rolls of men and women in relationship, which is outside the scope of this project.  More than that, and more intimate to the experience of life for me now, I wanted to include queerness as an integral part of this film.  Not simply as a concept of sexuality, because I’m pretty asexual these days, but as an attitude and baseline concept.  To me queerness points the way, it will let the viewer know to pay attention and that the subjects of the film will not be understood by a quick read.  We are communicating a feeling with this film.  To me, that feeling is the most important thing in the world.  For the characters of the film it is cloaked in sadness, but it is still true and redemptive and all creatures are granted its grace.  Especially dysfunctional squids.photo-8

From an emotional perspective then decisions were made easily and though the script was certainly not easy to write, one sentence led to the next and though I could not have imagined where it led before I got there, its end is complete and very satisfying (at least from the storytellers perspective).  Once the script was finished then, how to make a film, with such complex concepts from rigid ceramic figurines became the central issue.  When the idea was just an abstract floating around in my head, I though something like the play set for the previous video might work, with a single figurine to represent  each character.  As the script took shape, I realized that would be impossible.  All of the characters have a range of activities and motions.  In the end we needed four separate poses for each of the characters except one, and she is singular.

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Jeff and Ted began as drawings, First I drew squid, trying to understand basic anatomy and then to consider anthropomorphization of the animal.  These drawings here are the final draft and are drawn to scale.  This was a critical tool in keeping each of the various forms of the characters similar enough to carry the feeling that each represents a single identity.

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the first character I focused on was Ted.  Again Ted is the hero and the mover of the story.  Not that you see this in any way from the construction of the figurine.  Although the figures were made to stand up right and seem human after a fashion,  I really wanted them to remain ceramic figurines.  Their life is specific for two things, first is the video, and second is our intention to display the doll house and its “dolls” in the gallery when they are shown.  It seems such a mad idea to want to make films that star ceramic, but thats the idea, so we’ll have to go all out.  We will rely on the script and the voice acting to convey the emotion needed to tell the story.  After making Ted in his entirety twice, Gabe suggested that I make a single head and interchangeable legs for the chatting and stair climbing Ted.  It was also Gabe’s design for the stair climbing sled legs, which will allow for the ceramic to get up the steps on camera.  The head slots over the stem  of the legs and reduced the making time for each significantly.

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Jeff is far less active but had to be seen sitting on the couch alone.  Of course the script was not finished when I made the first pair on the couch and they are fused to it, so a second couch and Jeff had to be made.  Here is that squid, the arm is raised to that he can also sleep on the couch.

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Here they are on the first couch, the second pair built.

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The title of the film is “Magic Box” and the activities of all of the characters center around this TV like device that serves as a sort of electronic life coach.  The Magic Boxes will be iPhones and iPods.  I didn’t want to show anything but the screens so a sort of entertainment center for a phone had to be designed and built.  There will need to be a total of 5 of these for the entire apartment.  The build on these is complex as it requires shrinkage calculation.

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Here is a grouping of some of the objects for Ted and Jeff’s apartment after the first firing.  Glazing ideas are hatching slowly, but nothing will be attempted until all the figurines are ready for glazing as surface will help unite the four figures as one.