Thursday, December 29, 2011

Carousin' with the Chemo Critters

Ten Little Critters, pink n' pretty...I'd rhyme more, but I'm not that witty.

Earlier this year my friend, Lynn, had to start the arduous process of combating cancer. Wanting to cheer her up, I got to work on a special project, one I'd never attempted before (and I sneaked a peek of one of pieces in this April blog post). 

When I heard the worrisome news, the idea for the project just popped into my headten little animal totems done in a caricatured, happy style. What kind of animals those ten would be also just popped into my head, those being a raven, a bear, a rattie, a frog, a tortoise, a bunny, a penguin, a bluebird, a ground squirrel, and a cat. Each one kinda symbolized a specific thing I wanted to say, becoming a fun clinky friend as well as a reassuring message. 

Creating these wee ones was a blast! Sculpting the different body forms and the happy expressions was addictive. I wistfully thought of what it would be like to work for Disney as I sculpted in those smiles. But I did set one steadfast rule for myself: none of the critters could take more than two hours to sculpt. I set a timer. 

The reason for this was twofold. For starters, I knew my penchant for fiddly realism would seep in if I gave it enough "fiddle time." Not that that's a bad thing, but for this project, I thought that level of fiddliness would distract from the whimsical quality of these critters. I also didn't want to overwork these pieces into oblivion, and the timer made sure I had to prioritize what my hands did.  

And second, I think sculpting totally outside a familiar zone is a healthy exercise, especially for someone so specialized in realism. I have great admiration for artists who can "cartoon" things because it's so difficult for me. My brain just works too literally. Now, however, I wanted to encourage it to work beyond its OCD habit and for that, a time limit forces it to capture the essence of shape and form rather than "literalness." And it seemed to have worked!

That said, there was a complication. Okey doke—for backstorywe try to avoid having thick, solid portions of clay to fire. Like, say, nothing thicker than a small carrot. If we do, we risk having a massive explosion in our kiln (and destroyed pieces) due to moisture that couldn't evaporate from the clay properly, or air bubbles that burst when heated to their explosive point.

But as I'm prone to do, I get carried away and forget about such critical technical imperatives. I just sculpt, happy in my muddy delirium, and don't really think through the process. So when I sat back and finished all of them—now back in realityimagine how my eyes went AAAAAWOOOOGAAAAH when I realized just how big and thick they were! GadZOOKS! There sat ten little critters just asking for explosive trouble in Big Al. 

But no problem I thought, shirking off the initial panic. I could let them dry a teensy bit, cut them in half and hollow them out, like I did with Mr. Pony. The only thing is...I got distracted. Big time. Certain family matters and projects with pressing deadlines caused me to completely forget about this critical step, and I missed the window. Once clay gets too dry, you can't really piece it back together well, and it tends to shatter apart or crack when fired. So I was now committed to firing them solid and thick. Great.

That meant they had to dry. Dry dry dry DRY. So dry, they'd put the Sahara desert to shame. So they sat for two and a half months. Remember, though—moisture was only half the problem. There was still the threat of air bubbles, but that was something I had no way of managing. If an air bubble was in any of them, there was no way of knowing. It was a gamble, and I just had to forge ahead on faith and hope. 

The one thing that was working in my favor, however, was that these critters were sculpted in lowfire earthenware, a clay that's much more porous and forgiving in the air bubble department. Had they been sculpted in stoneware or porcelain, the outcome was potentially far more grim. Probably too grim to continue.

So came the big day, the bisque fire, in which the raw greenware clay is fired to make it hard. Being earthenware, this meant that the bisque fire would be the mature fire, the highest temperature, with the second fire for the glaze being the lowest temperature. So if these critters made it through this first bisque fire, they'd probably make it through the glaze fire, too. This was the moment of truth.

Taking precautions when I loaded them, I stacked kiln posts to form a kind of bomb shelter around each one. I thought if one exploded, at least the posts might contain the blast to help protect its neighbors and the inside of Big Al. Because, honestly, I fully expected to lose mostif not allof them. But the only way around it is through it and so in they went, and "on" Big Al clicked. I fretted for twelve hours.

The next day, I trepidatiously opened Big Al's gaping maw, already accepting the worst, when what did I see? ALL of them...intact? In perfect white bisque? WHAT?! GLORY BE! It's a chemo critter miracle! I quite literally couldn't believe my eyes and even started shaking with pure excitement. What an awesome omen! Heck, what a relief! To celebrate, I promptly chomped down a big chunk of chocolate. NOM NOM NOM.

So the next step was glazing. Again, because I don't think things through most times, how these puppies would be glazed really didn't get hammered out entirely. Or rather...not at all. I did know that realistic glazing was out because I thought that would be too distracting from the actual sculpture. But beyond that, I was at a loss. 

In hindsight, I'm rather irritated at myself for not having put more thought into the glazing aspect to be honest. Though I didn't know it at the time, deciding how to glaze these suckers delayed the entire project far longer than I intended. Hemming and hawing back and glaze? Solid? Directional? Splatter? Sponge? Airbrush? Different colors? What colors? Covercoat or tints? Overglaze? BAH! So many options! 

I finally made a command decision and chose directional underglaze in three harmonious colors: blue, green and magenta. I figured that would accentuate the sculpture, be colorful and look cool together.

Here are some of them, getting their clear gloss glaze after being directionally sprayed with colored underglaze. The clear glaze is tinted pink so you can see how you apply it, but the pink disappears in the fire.

After all was said and done, they all survived the glaze fire just fine and came out cooler than I expected! I was tickled beyond pink and into blue, green and magenta! So without further ado, here are the chemo critters...

 Here's the bear, scratching his paw. He's about 3.5" tall if I remember right. A solid chunk of 3.5" tall. Oy.

 And the bunneh, about 2.5" tall. Those ears were a riot to tack onto that noggin! And who can resist a bunny tail? No one, that's who!

The cat. I'm particularly pleased with this guy. He was one of the hardest to sculpt, that feline body having so many unfamiliar curvy nuances...and the skull was tricky. Wow, cat skulls are complex! But he was a lot of fun and a great challenge, so I'd like to sculpt more stylized cats for those reasons.

The bluebird, who also happens to be the state bird of Idaho. I'd never sculpted a bird before, and I pondered over those feathers, let alone the birdy shape. Because of all that, this little guy was the most difficult piece to sculpthe was just so waaaay outside my familiar zone! Boy, was I pleased to find that he turned out so cute! Lots of lessons learned from him (which I'll take back to my equine work). The biggest one? Just how effective a mere suggestion of something really is, such as "feather."

The perky purple penguin. I decided not to make his "arms" touch like some of the others since I liked the idea more of him softly popping his wings against his body. I envisioned him with that grin and doing that while rocking side to side with giddiness (and you can see that suggested by his tilted head position). That roll of goo was especially fun to sculpt!

And now for the froggie. Here's another one way outside my comfort zone. Wow! Frogs are wild to sculpt! I'm delighted with how he turned out, though, since I really wasn't so sure about it all. You know when you sculpt something so totally different, you kinda have no basis on which to base your confidence? Yeah, that.
The raven, who was about 4" beak to tail. If I remember right, he was the biggest piece. I really love ravens, and I knew Lynn liked them, too, so he was extra fun to bring to life. But I gotta tell ya...sculpting a smile into a beak is an interesting experience!

A happy tortoise. I adore tortoises! That shell was a thrilling challenge, but I especially loved sculpting his neck goo and his little face. Tortoises have such cute faces!

A squiggly ground squirrel. It's no surprise that two rodents infiltrated this crew. I mean, aside from the obvious association between me and rodentia, that body type lends itself so well to caricature. I really like how this little guy turned out, too, especially through his scrunched up shoulders and neck goo.

And, of course, a rat! What actually surprised me about this piece was that I sculpted him from memory. I really didn't think my brain was processing rattie form all these years, but apparently it was!

After all this, I offhand discovered something rather interesting, shown in these next three images. Now obviously there was a learning curve since all this was new to me. But to tell the truth, I really didn't know what to expect of myself. 

Despite all that, though, I anticipated a smooth and gradual learning curve, progressively demonstrating increased skill in each successive animal. Did I get a big surprise! How this project kicked off proved that a learning curve can be abrupt and nearly instant.

To back track for a moment, the first piece I started was the rat, since he was the most familiar, or rather, the least intimidating. Then I sculpted the bear and then the bluebird. But after I stepped back from these first attempts, I decided I didn't like them. They just didn't have the qualities I was going for and they were too crude. 

So I immediately started each one again from scratch that very same day. Here's where things get curious (the first attempts are in the top row, with the second attempts right below)...

Clearly, there's a big jump in evolution from the first try to the second try, as shown by the ratties. This caught me by total surprise, and what's more, I only realized this after I compared the two later. In other words, I wasn't cognitively aware that my brain had made this leap while I was sculpting the second attempt. It just happened.
Here we see the same effect in the bear. Night and day.
And the bluebird. That's a dramatic difference! Like two completely different people sculpted them! And in a sense, that's true.

Now this isn't to brag. It's to illustrate something important about creative development, which is: try again. That may sound simplistic, but it really digs into some useful ideas. For instance:
  • The way we look at things is subject to as much creative evolution as our practical skills. Moreover, this applies not only to how we perceive our subject, but how we perceive our sculptures, too. 
  • New abilities develop unpredictably. There isn't a "right way" of learning, so we shouldn't be surprised if some things come faster than others. Learning can happen sideways, too, when we aren't even realizing it's happening.
  • The only way to advance is to do and redo. Again and again. The more times we redo, the more opportunities we give our brains to refine and rethink what we're doing. Which brings us to...
  • We must finish what we start. If we rarely complete our projects, we don't give our brain the opportunity to complete its learning. Doing and learning are the same thing!
  • Though we may not like our first attempts, we shouldn't get discouraged because they don't indicate what we're really capable of! We can always try again. Learning is a process, and we need to give our brain the opportunity to put new lessons to work.
  • Even failures are worthwhile endeavors. We all have to start somewhere and we all need a baseline from which to grow! We shouldn't be afraid to dive in, or follow the wisdom of our hands.
  • Try something new from time to time. Keep your brain flexible and able to see the subject in different ways. It's fun, too!
  • And lastly, even experienced sculptors struggle and surprise themselves. Please don't feel inadequate if you're struggling because that's just part of the journey! Struggling means we're learning, so embrace it!
All these pieces are oneofakinds (AAOK), so there are no molds to create duplicate castings. Do I plan to revisit this idea, to make more critters? Perhaps. It would be creatively healthy for me to veer off into caricature-land from time to time, plus sculpting other animal forms is an enticing prospect. So I can't rule it out. If you see similar little denizens pop up from time to time then in my Etsy shop, you know what inspired them!

All in all, I'm happy to report that just as this project had a happy ending, so has Lynn's yearlong ordeal! We have so much to be grateful for, and so much to look forward to in 2012! Just keep forging ahead and shore each other up. And don't be afraid to be silly and have a bit of fun, even when things seem bleak. Above alllove love love. These critters were made with love for a lovely lady, and I hope they bring her many years of smiles and warm fuzzies!

"Most of us would be upset if we were accused of being 'silly.' But the word 'silly' comes from the old English word 'selig,' and its literal definition is 'to be blessed, happy, healthy and prosperous.'" ~ Zig Ziglar

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