When I was a sculpture major at The Cooper Union in New York City, I spent several years casting bronze using the lost wax process. I was enamored with the intricacy of the arcane process, with the beauty of the molten metal flowing out of the crucible, and with the industrial magic of creating a lustrous piece of art in bronze that would last for eons.
Bronze objects have been cast using the lost wax (cire perdue) process for at least 5,000 years. This alloy of tin and copper is revered for it’s beauty and durability, and is an ideal material for permanent outdoor sculpture.
A one-of-a-kind steel, wood or clay piece is just that, one. After the work that goes into producing a unique piece it gets sold and it’s gone. Casting in bronze enables the artist to duplicate the original piece by producing a limited edition of bronzes. Much the same as a print maker making an edition of lithographs or etchings.
To create a bronze there is significant labor and cost involved in the mold making and casting process as well as in the finishing work and patina.
A bronze edition can run anywhere from 1-20 bronzes, although I have heard of some artists casting up to 100. Each sculpture is labeled 1/10, 2/10, etc, to identify both the number within the edition and the total amount of pieces in the edition.
The production process is laborious and complicated. A silicon or plaster mold is made from the original piece of sculpture. Then one wax copy is made from the mold for each of the bronzes to be cast. The wax copy is then gated and vented, which means wax rods are added to provide a way for the molten metal to reach the inside of the mold and an avenue for gases to escape. The completed wax is now invested inside of a refractory plaster material which completely covers it leaving only a small cup shape on the top which will become the spot for the molten bronze to be poured into the mold. The entire invested structure now goes into an oven where the wax is melted away leaving a perfect impression in the investment medium. Hence the term, lost wax.
Bronze is melted down in a crucible and once molten, poured into the waiting mold. After the metal cools and hardens, the refractory mold is broken apart and discarded leaving the sculpture surrounded by a web of what are now solid bronze gates and vents which must be cut away and reused on the next pour.
The piece is then chased, meaning the surface is sanded and finished, and a final patina applied using heat and chemicals that form a permanent coloration on the surface.
After working in network TV for a decade as a graphics producer in New York, I decided to try something new and took a teaching position at Bilkent University in Turkey for two years. Upon returning to the States, I opened my first sculpture studio in Cooperstown, in rural Upstate New York.
Twelve years later, I moved west and began working in Taos, New Mexico, the legendary high-desert town of Agnes Martin, Georgia O’keeffe and D.H. Lawrence.
My Taos studio was a shack with no running water or insulation. It had a plywood roof that leaked like a sieve during the spring snow melt. But it had a splendid view of Taos Mountain and intrepid clients found adventure in the pilgrimage to see my work. It was an isolated haven of creativity.
During that time, I was exposed to Native Indian culture and ideas that influenced my view of our responsibility for the stewardship of nature. Ecological concerns had always been a part of my motivation to create images of animals, but I began finding a way to express a deeper message even as I developed practical solutions to the problems of building sculpture.
In Taos I met Larry Bell who had studios in both Taos and Venice Beach, California. In his Taos workshop Bell showed me how he created metallic finishes on glass and paper using a hi-tech process called thin film deposition. Larry had a coterie of counter-culture artist friends in Taos that included Dennis Hopper, Ken Price, Dean Stockwell and Ronald Davis. When I visited Larry at his studio in Venice Beach, I began to see the possibilities of living and working in Southern California. In 2010, I left Taos and moved to Los Angeles.
After exploring the glitzy, garish LA art scene, I went into the studio and destroyed many of my early works. I began to gravitate toward abstraction. I started work on a series of assemblage orbs made from discarded stainless steel objects – pots, pans, hubcaps and pet bowls.
I first developed this curious pack-rat technique of joining dissimilar objects together in Taos, but in LA I began using it to make non-objective forms. I called these conglomerations of objects, “midden” sculptures. The term midden refers to a dump for domestic waste which may consist of animal bone, botanical material, vermin, shells, shards and other artifacts and ecofacts associated with past human occupation. In a consumer culture that promotes materialistic excess evidenced by conspicuous over consumption, planned obsolescence, hoarding and the production of massive amounts of garbage, the midden work offered a new perspective on the pervasive cycle of production, consumption, and destruction.
When you are a creator you are constantly in the process of bringing art into being. From the thinking and planning stages to the actual production phase, artists eventually create art that takes up space. Depending on one’s propensity to produce, an artist’s output can range from sparse to prodigious. Production eventually begins to pile up. The problem becomes what to do with the accumulation of work.
Visiting some artist’s studios can be like looking at a monument to a lifetime of industry. A painter friend of mine here in St. Pete, has her work festooned from floor to ceiling on every square inch of wall space in her 1000 sq/ft studio as do most of the studio’s I have seen. Who can forget the photos of Calder’s studio jam packed with a cacophony of odd works, or shots of the rooms in Picasso’s house and studio completely filled with numerous stacks of paintings leaning against every bit of wall space.
Two thoughts come to mind – either these artists are very productive, or their work isn’t selling – probably a combination of these two factors. I confess that I am guilty of boasting, “I am extremely fortunate that everything I make is eventually sold.” Which is not entirely true. While I have sold thousands of pieces over the last two decades, I continue to create at a rate greater than my sales, thus, the inevitable dilemma of the accumulation of work ensues.
While a plethora of pieces waiting to be sold can be thought of as money in the bank, I find it disconcerting. One has to be incredibly confident or egotistical to continue creating when the latest piece is destined to be added to the burgeoning collection of previous creations cluttering up the workspace and gathering dust. I think the excessive accumulation of work as a kind of artistic constipation, where the buildup can cause creative blockage. Things have to keep moving to ensure a healthy flow.
What is the solution for an artist compelled to create, but lacking the means to effectively market and sell their work? The choice is either devote much greater energy and expense towards advertising and marketing or become comfortable with being surrounded and eventually inundated with artwork.
Last month I put in a proposal to create a large corTEN steel mustache sculpture to replace the one that is made of foam at the Dali Museum in St. Pete, FL. My idea was a large steel parallax mustache made up of 4-5 profiles.
I had just about given up hope of getting a response to my proposal and photoshop concept image when I got a call from Brian Iacofano at the museum saying that the director, Hank Hine, was very interested in my idea and to give them a firm cost for the piece.
I got into gear and created a DXF cad drawing of the piece with 5 profiles and emailed it off to 4 different waterjet/steel suppliers in the area for a material and cutting quote.
After I sent the Dali the quote for constructing a 12’ wide mustache they asked for quotes on a 17, 20 and 25 foot wide stash.
They chose the 17’ wide mustache and I set myself to the task of building a small steel maquette. They told me they were not asking any other artist’s for models and all that remained was the final approval and the signing of a contract. Acceptance of the maquette would seal the deal.
I asked for a modest stipend to create the maquette, which they agreed to. I made some size and scale calculations, drew out paper stencils for the 4 profiles, cut them out of 16g steel with the plasma cutter, finished the edges with my assistant Brittany’s help and welded the pieces together over two mornings work. It looks excellent, straight and balanced while being mounted on a dark stained walnut base. All that remains is a corTEN oxidized looking finish complete with texture lines that will simulate hair-like grooves in the full scale piece. Brian came to the studio and picked up the maquette on Friday and was wowed by the fish and ibis, etc. Monday morning I got the call…the director…loves it and I have been awarded the commission.
Wednesday. Wasted no time in getting the paper stencils I made for the maquette over to the waterjet cutter in Lutz to digitize. Once I know how much steel it will take to cut the full size profiles, I can get it ordered through Tampa Steel and the profiles can be cut ASAP after the material is delivered. Turns out It will fit on two 6’ x 10 sheets. I’m going over to Lutz on Monday to approve the final CAD drawings that will be used to cut the steel. If all goes according to plan, I should have the whole month of November to assemble the piece and get it installed at the museum by December 9th when they are planning a VIP unveiling gala for it in conjunction with the opening of the Frida Kahlo exhibit.
Mary Anderson, my contact at Tampa Steel, said they want to do some publicity on the sculpture after it’s completed to display to their customers the range of use of their materials.
Brian introduced me via email to Kathy Greif the Chief Marketing Officer and Chelsey Marketing Manager at the Dali. They said they were running promotional ideas for my mustache by their outside PR firm.
It took 3 hours on the computer, screen sharing with the water jet guy for me to remotely re-draw the profiles to my satisfaction. We also created the flange, gussets and holes/slots for the mounting pipe. Got the steel delivered and it’s going to be cut on Friday, so if all goes well, I will have the profiles in my studio by early November.
Built a long wooden mounting jig for the support pipes that will enable me to bolt them together in the exact orientation needed. This will help insure the two halves of the mustache line up. The Dali is going to be responsible for the excavation and concrete pour.
Today the profiles were cut from the corTEN sheets and all went well. The first major hurdle is cleared. They are palletised and ready for transport to the studio on Tuesday of next week. Len from WEDU project and Linda from Tampa Steel were on hand to photograph and video the process.
November 1. The profiles and pipes were delivered to the studio this afternoon and they looked superb. The forklift took them off the truck and loaded them into the studio. I stacked one side up on the table using wood blocks as spacers and everything was perfect, the scale, the relationship of the profiles and the space between them, all good.
November 2. My assistant Grace helped me cut up and move the large drop plates from the studio floor and stack the pieces on the side wall. We also started grinding the “hair” texture lines into one of the large profiles. Which turned out to be as difficult as I had anticipated. A few small slips were hardly noticeable but made me want to add more random marks to make it look more hairlike. Linda from Tampa steel was on hand to photograph the morning’s work. One fortuitous discovery we hit upon when wiping off the sharpie markings was that acetone made the steel turn a beautiful dark tone and removed the orange rust spots completely. How long it will last will be interesting to see. I ended up abandoning grinding in the hair texture in favor of gouging them in with the plasma cutter. This made for much cleaner and quicker work.
November 9. Over the past week the mustache has come together remarkably well. Today I welded the last of the profiles together and laid the whole piece out on the floor with the support pipes. Brian came by to get a tracing of the largest profile so he could make a mock up for Hank to determine how far apart the two halves should be. They decided on a 14” gap, which is much greater than I had originally planned. Brian’s going to start excavation for the pipes on site with a goal of getting the piece installed by Thanksgiving.
I suggested the Dali Museum approach Tampa Steel Supply with the idea of becoming a corporate sponsor of the piece. Seems they liked the idea and made a deal to have their name displayed on a plaque as the sponsor of the sculpture for a year.
I made the support pipe positioning jig to insure proper alignment of the two sides. It ended up being over 13’ long. I also made two more spacers, one for under each pipe that will insure they are both set at the proper height. It’s critical that the support pipes be set exactly right so that the two halves of the moustache line up evenly.
November 14. Put the last welds on the support pipes today and the piece is ready for transport to the site. Embedding the support pipes in the ground should happen later this week. After the concrete sets, the mustache can be bolted in place for a Thanksgiving Day debut.
November 15. Embedded the pipes this morning with Brian and crew. All went according to plan with the mounting jig working perfectly. We bolt on the sculpture next Monday morning.
November 21. Arrived with the profile sections stacked in the truck at 7:30am at the Dali Museum. It was a crisp 52 degree morning. Brian’s guys lifted the mustache sections one by one out of the truck and hoisted them into position on the support pipes while I screwed on the nuts. It took ten minutes to mount. My sister Linda showed up and I was happy to see her and have her share in this crowning moment. The slots I cut in the mounting flanges came in handy as I had to adjust the tips to match in the center and it worked perfectly. Several hours of photos afterwards and the Dali mustache is complete!
One night I had a strange dream where I encountered a huge songbird hopping about in the yard. The shift in proportion made me feel apprehensive towards the enormous bird. He was scary.
I was used to seeing little birds as cute, harmless creatures. I reacted to him like he was a dinosaur, which in fact he was, as birds are the direct descendants of the dinosaurs. This sparrow was magnificent, stately and sublime.
As the dream encounter with dino-bird kept coming back to me throughout the day, I realized The big bird would be a perfect subject for a new sculpture. Perhaps I could bring that feeling of awe I had in the dream to the viewer when they encountered a giant bird sculpture face-to-face. I decided to shift the Passeridae paradigm and give the tiny bird monumental size and dignity.
After doing some anatomical research, I dashed off some sketches. Growing more enamored with the idea, I applied for funding from the Orlando, Florida Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, which was sponsoring a call for sculptures to be installed on the lawn of the Orange County Administration building for a year. One prerequisite was that the artwork had to be over six-feet tall. It seemed like destiny.
I presented the idea and was awarded the $3,500 grant, and Dream Sparrow was born, well not quite. Now came the hard part, I had to create it from a pile of rusted steel.
Building the sculpture
The first thing I did was purchase and install a chain hoist on the overhead “I” beam. I’ve always wanted the ability to rig up a heavy piece of sculpture and lift it from floor to workbench and vise versa. The hoist proved invaluable during the of production of the Dream Sparrow, as I moved it from floor to welding table many times to check proportions and for accessibility in welding. I don’t know how I ever got along without a hoist
After a week I had the sparrow standing as a complete wire frame. I worked on the feet and began to fill in the body with 16 gauge steel pieces which I cut from a sheet as well as transmission parts and flywheels. The big bird was coming alive. I would need a lot more material to fill him out completely, and he will be heavy, probably 400-600 lbs. I will have to make many trips to the local transmission shops, who so far, seem only too willing to let me dig through their scrap bins. They find the idea of an artist using their cast-offs an interesting distraction for them, a curiosity, in a world inhabited by grease-monkeys and motor heads.
It’s satisfying to add a piece of steel, a found object or a gear to the slowly growing bird. Bit by bit, it is taking form. The whole has become greater than the sum of it’s parts
A Bird’s Eye View
I always document the progress of my sculpture projects with photos, but ideally I wanted to have someone record the creation of the Dream Sparrow from start to finish with a behind-the-scenes video.
I was told about a bright young videographer, Nathan Shirk. I contacted him and told him about the project. He stopped by the studio and we hit it off immediately. He’s eager, smart and enthusiastic about shooting the production of the piece as well as the acquisition of materials at the transmission shops, and the eventual installation in Orlando.
Dream Sparrow was installed June 2016 at the Orange County Administration Building, located at 301 S Rosalind Ave, Orlando, FL 32801, and will be on display for a year.
While artist-in-residence at Arthub in Kingman, AZ, I was intrigued by the jackrabbits I would see on my daily forays in the desert. They were the inspiration for the idea to make a large sculpture depicting an anthropomorphic hare. I was fascinated with their distinctive long ears and oversized, powerful rear legs.
Compiling a proposal to create the twelve foot tall steel Running Hare, I presented it to nearby Mohave Community College along with a letter of recommendation from the Mayor of Kingman. The Dean of the College was receptive to the idea and my plan was approved to use the welding department facilities as a temporary studio to build the sculpture
The resident faculty head of the MCC welding department, Buddy May, showed me the outdoor area set aside for my temporary studio space. He gave me access to a storage room which contained an EZ-Up portable canopy, collapsible Miller welding work tables and all the welders and plasma cutters I needed.
I made use of the relative coolness of the morning to set up my work area and create some shade before the sun grew stronger. It was over 100 degrees everyday, much too hot to work in the direct sun.
Buddy also showed me some scrap steel I could use to build the giant hare sculpture. Among the pipes and sheets were two large stacks of ¼” thick steel circles that were all exactly 25 inches in diameter. Perfect material for a large heavy base. That evening I played with a stack of quarters to figure out the best way to configure the base.
I used 11 of the 25” diameter circles to make the base. Once I got them positioned correctly and ½” holes drilled in four of them for anchor bolt mounting at the site, they could be welded together.
This is where Jerry Shook comes in. A stout diminutive fellow, Jerry was a welder by trade. Now retired, he helps out at the college twenty hours a week. He sports a long white Fu Manchu stash and a shaved head. His friends affectionately refer to him as Papa Smurf. Jerry is an old-school welder who knows how to run a sweet bead. I was very lucky to have him working with me. As we got to know each other and I showed him the drawing of the sculpture I intended to build, his enthusiasm for the project grew. It took the rest of the morning and most of the next day to complete the base. Total weight, 403 lbs.
Material acquisition is a vitally important component of any sculpture, especially when a feature of the design is unusual and interesting found objects. Local businessman, Scott Dunton, is well connected and knows almost everyone in town. He’s the mini-me Donald Trump of Kingman. Brash and outspoken, Scott is a great friend to have when you need to get something done. In order to acquire scrap metal, asked Scott if he could arrange an introduction with the owner of Bulldog Scrap Recycling, Ken Watkins. In a flash, Scott called Watkins, told him about the sculpture project and just like that, he was on board.
Ken Watkins was very generous in supporting the project and gave me carte blanche to pick up as much material as I needed from his scrap yard to build the hare. I began to look around in earnest that afternoon and managed to find a few good pieces among the enormous piles of twisted metal stacked up by huge cranes carrying electromagnets. When I drove up, Dave, the manager of the operation warned me, “Stay clear of the center aisle when he’s swinging the magnet around.” It could easily toss cars around like so much litter.
It was already 98 degrees at nine am when Jerry and I started working on the hare. I held the steel pieces up in position and Jerry tacked them. I stepped back and checked the composition and said, “weld ‘er up”, and Jerry went to work. It was an efficient system and we both enjoyed the process of seeing the sculpture slowly come to life. We managed to finish most of the two thighs and the back foot in a little less than three hours.
Since the total height of the piece was going to be too high to work on without a scaffold, I engineered a simple device for joining the upper and lower portions of the sculpture. This way I could build both halves from the ground up to a working height of 6 feet and then bolt them together on the site.
Made good progress on the legs using leaf springs as curving linear elements. I also began to construct the torso. I used the measurements from the drawing when fashioning the pieces for the torso, which was important since I wasn’t working in direct relationship with the legs, but next to them on a table. We hoisted the rough armature up atop the legs and Jerry held it in place while I took a look. It’s going to work. It had the feeling of a running figure, dynamic and athletic.
To make up for the day we lost yesterday I came in again tonight at seven pm and worked on filling in the torso. After looking at the photos I took of the rough torso, I decided to shorten the upper arms and adjust the angle of them in relation to the body. It was nice working in the relative cool of the early evening, even though it was still in the mid-eighties.
It felt good to get back to work on the hare after the college was closed for the long labor day weekend. We have a great amount of work to do and a limited amount of days to accomplish it. This morning we worked on the arms and torso. Jerry plasma cut the shapes which I sketched out on the steel and I curved the pieces in the vice and welded them into place. It’s such a great help to have an assistant that can do jobs that otherwise would take me twice as long to do by myself. The heat was back hovering near 100 degrees with only an occasional breeze for relief. Working in the outdoor studio in the Arizona heat wasn’t easy.
After two months of work the piece is finished. We clear coated it this morning and it looks amazing. The gloss brings out the depth and sheen of the metal. All that remains is to install it in it’s permanent home along historic Route 66 this coming Thursday, September 24. A video of the whole process can be seen here.
Transported the hare to the site with a trailer and forklift this morning with the help of Scott Dunton’s crew. Setting it up went smoothly and it was proudly standing by 11am, to the delight of tourists and passers-by.
After a week of drawing and planning, I started construction of a large fish sculpture. It’s based on a design I did in NY eleven years ago called Tripod Fish. As with that piece, this one stands on two front pectoral fins and one rear fin.
Being much larger than it’s predecessor, it’s going to top off somewhere around 10 feet tall and be almost 11 feet long. I’m using the construction method I developed for the Dream Sparrow and Big Ibis – ¼” round armature strengthened in critical areas with heavier plate steel and sheathed with the perforated transmission valve body plates and gears.
It’s always difficult to layout the first outline of a big piece in ¼” rod. There is nothing to brace the initial large curved circles against and it begins as a very unwieldy process. Slowly the desired form takes shape, but the fish armature was more uncooperative than usual due to it being in essence an eight foot diameter floppy discus shape.
Midway through the first week of work, I decided to give the “discus” a gentle curve, making the body more elegant and fish-like. This curvature added more complexity to the construction of the armature and necessitated unanticipated changes in the design. On a large piece, even small changes are a lot of work.
So far I haven’t had to purchase any major material for the fish apart from $85 worth of rods. I have been very fortunate to get a lot of 14 -16 gauge steel sheets from a local company that makes industrial doors. They have a lot of scrap and excess material and were kind enough to let me have some of it. Also Kris at the transmission shop has been putting gears and valve body plates aside for me and he’s been another dependable resource.
The three supporting fins are each going to be made as a sandwich of two identical plates joined together by a 1/2” solid steel rod that runs continuously around the perimeter edge. The three fins will appear to be made of thick plates and have the rigidity to solidly support the fish. In reality the three fins are made up of six plates and 30 ft of rod.
I made full size stencils for the fins and transferred them to the steel for plasma cutting.
Once I get the fins made I can weld them onto the body and have the piece freestanding. When this is accomplished, it will be a great advantage to be able to construct the rest of the fish from the vantage point of exactly how it will be seen.
The tail fin is likewise made of multiple plates of steel welded together. It will be three plates, the two outer plates being identical will act as supporting crescents to the center plate which forms the full shape of the tail fin.
The head section is the most challenging piece, being 6 feet tall and 30” wide. It has to conform to the curve of the circumference as well as taper out to accommodate the thickening of the body near the gills. It also has to convey the personality of the fish and contain a rather complex mouth and support the eyes.
I drew the head profile directly onto a full sheet of steel based on small scale paper models. After I cut out one side of the head I will use that as a pattern to trace and cut the other side of the head.
I cut one half of the head out of 16g steel this morning with a hand held plasma cutter and after some refinements, I am very satisfied with the way it looks and feel confident it is going to work out as planned. WEDU crew was on hand to video the process. ( see the finished video here)
Made stencils for the two inside mouth pieces and cut them out of steel. They fit perfectly and the personality of the face is starting to come through.
Roughly thirty days into the project and the fish is 85% complete. One whole side is basically finished and it really looks terrific. I started calling it Celestial Fish, as the gears on each of it’s sides are reminiscent of the planets in our solar system while the stars are represented by the small holes in the transmission valve body plates.
Welded the base circles together and drilled the anchor holes. All that remains is to fill in the left side, do a little grinding and weld the three supporting fins to the base circles.
Built a 4’ x 6 dolly out of 2 x 4’s and hoisted the fish atop. It’s a relief to be able to slide the fish around, enabling me to clear coat it outside and to make way for the Dali mustache profiles that will be arriving in a few weeks.
Covered the last bit of real estate on the left side and it’s basically finished. Aside from some tweaking and finishing all that remains is to clean and clear coat it.
There’s a slight anticlimactic letdown after finishing a piece that I worked on for so long. I expect it to come alive and swim away, but it just sits there, mute and motionless. The art selection committee is considering this piece for the new pier in St Pete, so it may be swimming away after all.