Every totem I sculpt, is for me, a multi-layered adventure that follows its' own natural, initiatory path. Like all such journey's into the unknown, this one began with a call to adventure in the form of my friend Jenny.
“Hey,” she said, “Can I commission you to make a totem for me? I want to have one made but I wasn’t sure if it would be something were interested in.”
Jenny gets that in order for me to take on a commission, there has to be something in the request that calls to me, the artist. Something that intrigues me enough to answer with a wholehearted, "Yes!" Because in saying yes, I'm committing myself to at least a full week or two of edge pushing fun and frustration.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, leaving a pause, “I want an albatross. They mean a lot to me for a variety of reason but most especially because they have taught me about how to fly. How to spread my wings and glide with life, rather than against it.” I didn't really need to think about this one.
Step 1: Research
Continuing with the language of the heroes journey, I suppose you could say, this is the stage where I gather allies and figure out who the enemies are. I typically begin with a Google search to gather images and watch videos. I seek information on the creature's biology and physiology. I'll also seek out mythological connections. During this process, an awareness of what the challenges might be start to show themselves and I begin to adjust accordingly.
Step 2: Sketching: A Search for the "Thread."
With reference material at the ready, I normally spend a few days sketching out ideas in my notebook. Nothing formal. Rarely anything beautiful. They're rough I tell ya. Like, 60 grit rough.
Here, I'm trying to build a relationship to the animal. Sketching with pencil and paper, along with a few other practices I won't go into this time around, becomes a sort of meditation, allowing me to find what I have come to refer to as, "the thread." Once I find the thread, my guide, movement begins to happen. I'm avoiding the word muse here because I'm not certain it's the same thing and it sounds kinda cheesy.
Either way, I get it if this all sounds pretentious, but it's exactly what happens. Without the thread, I don't have enough motivation or clarity of vision to move forward. With it however, I can pick up some clay and start to sketch three dimensionally. In the case of the albatross, I spent a few hours roughing out a general shape until I had yet another thread to add to the bundle. When I was satisfied with the shape, I decided to switch to a firmer clay as I had failed to recognize that the first clay wouldn't have the strength to hold up when it came to the wings. So, I had to rough out the shape all over again. Still, the bundle of threads where beginning to form a rope that began to bind me to the complete albatross waiting at the other end of the journey.
Step 3: Sculpting
Someone recently asked, "When does a sculpture come alive for you?" The short version of my answer was, "The sculptures have several births throughout the whole process. And for the most part, those births occur in tandem with a death."
The albatross had many deaths and births on the path to its completion. With each one, I had to let go of what I thought should happen so I could learn something new. Interestingly, there comes a point in the process of sculpting, when the piece says, "You've found me. Now return to the surface." And that's what I do. I begin the often long slog back to the surface by starting the process of mold making and casting.
Step 4: Mold
Unlike clays used in ceramics, the clays I use cannot be fired in an oven. Therefore, a mold of the sculpture is made and castings are produced.
Now even though this albatross was just a fraction of the birds actually size, making a mold of the sculpture was going to be expensive compared to other pieces I've done. So, I decided to try a new method that would considerably reduce the amount of silicone needed. Long story short, It was a complete disaster; adding days and expense to the process. Remember when I said, "long slog..."? Yeah, well, this was it.
Below was the attempted money saver. Instead of making the usual block mold which I ended up going back to, I made a thin mold "supported by a plastic-fiber shell. The grey bits are where the casting leaked resulting in a very distorted end product. So, back to the drawing board!
In the end, I returned to the tried and true methods I have learned over the past year and added to my skill set, the ability to cast the sculpture in pieces. Thus, the photos of a wingless albatross. I also "invited" a way of using a mold frame that used blocks of wood to take up the space that would have otherwise been expensive silicone, thus the "steps" in the wing molds.
Step 5: Casting
While this is hardly the final step in the process, it's the one where I get to find out if the many challenges that were met along the way were in fact successfully overcome.
I often use a two-part, urethane resin to make my castings. It's a durable material that can be glued, drilled, sanded, and painted. I enjoy working with it, so long as the casting comes out clean. And you can never be quite sure until you pull that first casting from its' rubbery womb.
And now for your viewing pleasure... A video of the first casting process. Fingers crossed!
WARNING: I can be a salty sailor.
Step 6: Putting it all Together
It came out perfectly. In fact, one of the best to date. With a successful casting behind me, I needed to cast the wings separately before I could join them to the body, then the body to the stand, and finally sculpt the legs.
To join the wings, I used a heavy duty epoxy followed by a two-part epoxy clay to cover up joint lines and add extra strength. I used a heavy gauge armature wire for the legs. One end of the wire was glued into holes drilled into the albatross' legs while the other end mounted into holes in the stand. Once dry, I used the same two-part epoxy putty (magic sculpt) to form the legs and feet.
Almost home! The photo below shows the complete cast with wings in place and waiting to be pointed to its base so that legs and feet can be made.
Step 7: Paint - Almost Home? Well... Almost
With the sculpture all in one piece, joined, reinforced, sanded, and cleaned, I gave it a coat of primer. In most cases I use a black gesso. Sometimes white. Sometimes grey. Then it's back to reference material for color.
When it comes to paint, I've been doing a lot of experimenting. A few years back, I fell in love with milk paints. One of the oldest kinds of paint we have, milk paints employ a milk based protein as a binder for the pigment. Unfortunately, you can't save unused portions as they go rancid. Plus, they're hell on brushes. Still, I've always loved them for their flat, old-world look.
Fortunately, I've discover chalk paints. A more modern paint with all the coolness of milk paints minus the stinky after smell or taste! And so the albatross marked my initiation into the world of chalk paints. I couldn't be happier with the result and look forward to working with them in the future.
Once dry, I apply a clear coat and some tinted wax.
Step 8: In search of the totemic meaning: "Goonies Never Say Die!"
First off, if you're still reading this, you just may be a Goonie! Good for you for hanging' in there.
The day after I finished the albatross, I sat down to write a reflection on the piece with the intention of identifying the lessons I gained from from the process and to name the deeper meaning imbued within this particular totem. I wasn't sure where to begin.
I thought of what my friend Jenny told me. I thought of all the hard lessons and set backs I had along the way. I considered the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poem in which a sailor kills an albatross, inciting the anger of his shipmates who saw the bird as a symbol of hope and salvation. But still, I wasn't certain. I just needed this final thread in order to call the piece done.
So, I typed the word "albatross" into my search bar once more just as I had almost two months earlier (Sorry Jenny. But you did say "however long"). Among the listings that came up was one for "Albatross - Goonie Bird."
'Goony Bird,' I thought to myself. As in Goonies? As in The Goonies? One of my favorite childhood movies in which a group of awkward teens set out to rescue their homes by literally going underground in search of pirate treasure? A true heroes quest and initiation if ever there was one? 'No... Couldn't be,' I thought.
But as I read further, the description of a somewhat clumsy, awkward bird, who had the ability to fly incredible distances with great ease... well, I knew I had found the final thread I was looking for.
The albatross or goonie bird, though odd to some in many ways, is a symbol of the unrelenting spirit of youth and innocence. It is a symbol of the courage it takes to stand up for and protect what is most important to you. It's belief in one's self and the forward facing character that shouts, "Goonies never say die!"