Monday, December 23, 2013

Exploring the 3rd Dimension!: Research and Theory

I’ve decided to take my work to the 3rd Dimension – adding literal depth and texture to my artwork.
There are many ways of doing this, and I’ve been pondering the possibilities.

There are a couple of considerations I have from the get-go that will determine which materials and methods to use.
  1. Most of my work is sold online and shipped to buyers, so I don’t want my pieces to be too heavy or too fragile, both of which make packing and shipping more expensive and risky as far as damaging unique and irreplaceable items.
  2. I prefer to create ready-to-display pieces that don’t require framing.  I’ve heard numerous tales of people buying prints or original art, excited to put it up in their homes, only to realize that matting and framing the piece would cost another $100+, often resulting in the artwork languishing as other priorities are attended to.
So…I need something lightweight and sturdy, that’s ready to hang or display as-is.
These requirements eliminate a lot of materials, including earth-based clays and ceramics, plaster and cultured stone.
Possibilities that meet these requirements include some resins and various plastic formulations, especially foam-based ones, which reduce weight by replacing much of the bulk with air bubbles.
However, working with these chemicals often requires ventilation, special equipment, etc.  Waste material cannot be recycled.  It can also be expensive.

Another option that I find particularly intriguing is cast paper.
Basically, this is paper pulp that is pressed into a mold to shape it.  There are numerous artists working in this medium, using a number of different formulations and techniques.   
The basic recipe is just any old paper that is torn into small pieces, soaked and blended with water in a blender to break up the fibers.  This watery pulp is then pressed into a mold and the water removed using sponges and evaporation.

There are also numerous additives that folks have experimented with to add different properties to the paper pulp – including glues, starches, wallpaper paste, joint compound, clays and plaster.

This fortified paper pulp (and/or strips) is generally considered paper maché, an ancient sculptural medium that is unfortunately not terribly well-respected these days.  It is most commonly associated with grade school crafts and cheap piñatas. 

But this medium has a long and interesting history.
The ancient Egyptians used it to make coffins and death masks for their mummies.  In Asia and the Middle East, beautiful lacquered jewelry boxes and trays were crafted.  It was also used to add decorative elements to amour and shields of samurai warriors.
Eboshi-Shaped Kabuto (Helmet) with Maedate (Crest) in the Form of a Mantis Edo period, 17th century Iron, lacquer, cord, silk, wood, gold, and papier-mâché; H. of bowl: 8 in. (20.3 cm) - Art of the Samurai at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 18th century, European architects and designers devised waterproof paper maché formulations to create cheaper and lighter decorative elements for buildings, coaches and furniture.

It was used to skin wood-framed canoes and observatory domes and even to make projectiles fired from guns and artillery cannons.   

File:Schenkl projectile.jpg
The Schenkl projectile, used in the American Civil War, used a papier-mâché sabot

Other wartime uses included military aircraft fuel tanks made from plastic-infused paper, and paper maché combat decoys of tanks and soldiers that were used to draw enemy fire and help locate shooters.

It has a long history of use in the theater – from scenery and props to masks, costume pieces and puppets. Today is it used to build elaborate carnival floats, lampshades, dolls and effigies of saints and gods that are often burned in sacred rituals.

 And it has always been used to make art.  Paper maché lends it self to art with colorful, primitive, folksy qualities that most people usually associate with the medium, but there are amazing things being done in this with it that go far beyond humble figurines and school projects.
Oaxacan animalito figure (couldn’t find artists credit)

Troll by Kim Graham

Not to mention the massive, mind-blowing wood and paper maché sculptures built and burned at the Las Fallas Festival in Valencia, Spain every year.
Las Fallas festival sculpture

But the artist that is doing stuff closest to what I have in mind is Celtic artist Kevin Dyer
He sculpts his original design in wax, makes a mold and uses paper pulp to make a casting from the mold. He then hand-paints each cast.  The results are lovely.  The paper creates a bas relief with an almost porcelain finish, and brings dimension and definition to his complex knotwork compositions.
Celtic Wheel of Life paper cast by Kevin Dyer

I’d like to do something similar, but less fragile.  I’d like the finished pieces to have the solidity of a plaque or heavy plate that can be hung directly on a wall or set on a display easel.

One material I've been looking into is called Sculptamold. Sculptamold is a blend of paper pulp and plaster, which is non toxic and air-hardens to a very lightweight, strong and durable material. This would seem to be an ideal casting medium, but the texture is rather coarse and lumpy.

I want my surface to be finely textured to grab the fine details of my designs.  The finest paper pulp I've come across is called cotton linters. This is the tiny fibers that are left behind on the cotton seed after ginning removes the longer cotton fibers from the seed. It is naturally acid free, an important consideration for creating long-lasting fine art.  Only paper made from wood pulp has the dangerous acidity that can discolor and degrade paper over time.

So my idea, after much research, is to use fine cotton pulp for the surface layer, and use the Scuptamold to “fill” the cast, adding bulk and sturdiness.  

Theoretically, I think this combination will give me the fine texture and detail I envisions as well as the structure and durability I desire.

Of course, it might not work as I hope.  Air-dry materials tend to shrink and warp, and combining two different materials may well result in unforeseen difficulties.
But that’s what experimentation is for!

I just received my shipment of cotton pulp, Sculptamold and mold-making materials.  I’ll be getting to know these materials and testing my theories (and making a mess, I'm sure).  I’ll let you know what I discover!

After Christmas, I should have some funds to get some exciting new art supplies to finish my casts and make them shine!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Exploring The 3rd Dimension!: Prologue

For the past few years I’ve pretty much exclusively worked in a digital medium.  My designs start with hand sketches, which are scanned in and finished on the computer.  I’ve made these finished images manifest as paper prints, clothing, jewelry and device covers.  All of these are basically 2-dimensional applications - flat images.

But I recently watched several episodes of a PBS series called “Craft In America”, which profiles artisans working in metal, textiles, clay, glass and more.  I was suddenly struck by the fact that it had been awhile since I’d actually hand-painted any personal work (I have done some freelance projects), or created anything from physical raw materials.  My work had become almost purely cerebral – a vision in my brain translated into reality through minimal action; mainly the miniscule motions of manipulating mouse and keyboard.

Not that this technique does not result in satisfying work…I have settled into this medium for a reason – it allows me to very precisely develop my ideas and imagery.
But watching these artisans play with raw materials and work with their hands to create unique pieces got me itching to do so as well, to try new things and learn new skills.

I’ve long envisioned my designs in 3D.  Flat pictures are wonderful things, but imagery that has mass and presence, that interacts with shifting light and shadow and perspective has an extra dimension of fascination – literally, a 3rd dimension – of depth and substance.

So this realization and inspiration has sent me on a ravenous survey of new possibilities.  Projects I’d been contemplating, but had not followed through on have been brought back out into the light and reconsidered.  Various materials and techniques are being re-explored, new ones discovered, and possibilities of combining these established mediums in new ways pondered and planned.

The potential of blending the digital and the traditional, technology and hand craftsmanship has my little brain cells bursting with ideas and new avenues of inquiry that drive me to quest into unfamiliar territory, or revisit past investigations with new eyes.

My mind has been researching and studying, following breadcrumb trails through the internet, examining the properties of various materials, studying the work and techniques of other artists, watching how-to videos on YouTube, checking books out from the library.   

I’ve done a bit of experimenting with materials I had on hand, or could acquire locally.  I’ve sloshed some plaster around, stole tools from Dore’s workshop to try my hand at carving it. I’ve lugged a 25 lb bag of clay home from the art supply store and slapped that around.  But these things haven’t given me quite the result I’m looking for. 

But I’ve got some ideas I think will work, some new skills to acquire and materials to test. I’ve got allies I can collaborate with to help bring my visions to life.
I’ve ordered some more exotic supplies (and resisted ordering many, many more tempting ones).  Experimentation in earnest awaits only the FedEx truck’s arrival with my box of goodies.

I find myself a bit jittery and impatient. 
It’s exciting!  And frustrating…this lack of immediate gratification.  The Muse demands ACTION!
But I suppose this is a vital aspect of the very arena I’m delving into – the need for raw materials to start with. The necessity of a step-by-step process which physically shapes the formless into form.

This path requires patience. 
Waiting is.
Creation will be.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Getting Old

I’ve been thinking about aging a lot lately.
I turned 40 in August, and I’ve been noticing the changes in my body.  I put on weight more easily these days (though I’ve never been prone to slimness).  The texture of my hair has changed – more fine and thin and wispy than it used to be. My skin gets very dry now, especially in wintertime.  Wrinkles are becoming more prevalent.  Things are sagging.

I see so much fear and hatred in our society about this stuff.  People fight aging tooth and nail, desperate to cling to the attributes of youth.  As a culture, we seem to despise the attributes of old age.  If you are not slim and fit and smooth-skinned and glossy-haired, fashionable and hip to the latest technology and terminology, you are considered gross, foolish, out of touch, irrelevant. 
No one wants to be those things, so we try to stave off aging, we hate seeing the signs of it in our own bodies.  We are offended when people call us “ma’am”, we don’t want to be considered or called “old”. We lie about our age. We spend millions of dollars on skin creams and plastic surgery, fad diets and injecting toxins into our skin, etc....desperately trying to avoid those hideous changes that come with age.

See how hideous she is in the Before picture???

 But that’s a losing game, kids.  No one has ever lived a long life without getting old.  It’s a part of the process.  We change constantly, and in many ways predictably.

You have already changed profoundly throughout your lifetime.  You began as a single cell, were born a plump and tiny infant.  When you grew into a child, did society scorn you for that development?
When you went through puberty and developed adult attributes, were you encouraged to delay that change?  These life transitions are considered natural and normal – they are even anticipated and celebrated.

But once you hit middle age, further progress along this universal path of transition is no longer desirable.  We want the inexorable march of time to halt, or at least to slow down.  We don’t want to continue the journey we began at birth.  We want to maintain our youth, because wrinkles and sagging flesh and less flexible joints and failing eyesight are terrifying, and even more terrifying is that we know what comes next…death…and we are certainly not ready for that!

But die we will.  Maybe in 50 years, maybe today.
And the only thing we can do in the face of inevitability is to accept it and make peace with it.  Even find the beauty in it.
detail from a work in progress

I am working on a piece about wisdom, featuring an old woman, and while studying reference picture of wrinkled faces and recreating them in my artwork, I began to see how beautiful the shapes and contours and textures of aged skin are.  The patterns suggest the valleys cut by rivers through stone, the cracked surface of a dried lake bed, the gnarled bark and fractal branches of trees.
As far as I can tell, our skin just gets more and more interesting as we age.  The smooth, featureless landscape of youthful skin seems incredibly boring by comparison.
I look at my hands now and I see a complex and fascinating network of tiny lines, flexing and deepening, growing more and more intricate as I progress on my journey through life.  I see the result of countless smiles etched into the flesh at the corners of my eyes.

We don’t have to consider wrinkles ugly.  That’s just the popular concept these days.  But I don’t buy it.  You don’t have to, either.
"Laugh Lines" by Karen Walzer

Personally, beyond the physical changes, I’ve found the mental and emotional changes that come with age to be quite marvelous.
The longer I live, the more I experience and seek out information, the bigger my picture of the universe gets, the more I’m able to see how it all fits together, and find the beauty in the whole system – even the scary parts like death, which seems less wrong and terrifying when we realize it is a necessary part of the grand scheme of things.

My perspective is changing from micro to macro.  I’m no longer so focused on myself and my own little world, but able to perceive beyond the limits of my own life and appreciate the greater context.
And when this happens, we realize that many of the things we thought were true and obvious are really just certain ways of perceiving things…and that there are many other ways that are just as compelling, if not more so, than the ones we were raised with. 
And that we have a choice in what we want to believe.
Teenagers look at the plump older lady at the grocery store - no makeup, wearing sweatpants, and think: “Yuck!  How awful, she’s just given up on life!”.
What they don’t realize is that the older lady has actually figured out what life is really about, and it has little to do with looking fashionable.  Perhaps she’s come to the conclusion that comfort is more important to her than what the teenagers at the grocery store think of her.
Younger people can’t understand some of the things older people do, but I think older people CAN understand why the younger folks do what they do, because they have done it, and come out the other side into somewhere different.

Younger people are focused on such things for a reason- they are exploring and learning to navigate the world of their peers, which is largely centered on finding a mate.  In our culture, appearance is considered very important in choosing a mate, and the spectrum of “acceptable attractiveness” tends to be rather narrow, considering the vast array of human distinctiveness of appearance.  Only a small percentage of humans would be considered beautiful if we stick to the fashion magazine standards.  How ridiculous is that?!  These days, even people who do fit the standards of beauty are ripped apart for minor deviations.  “I don’t think she’s that pretty”, they say of some gorgeous actress, “she’s too skinny/fat/pale/etc.”, and they sneer in disgust.  

 I remember thinking these kinds of thoughts when I was younger, and they still creep in today, but I can realize now how utterly insane and dehumanizing such comments are.
These days I see the beauty in peoples’ distinctiveness, how they change and grow, how they express themselves and impact one anothers' lives. 
My concept of beauty has broken free of the cage of societal standards and embraces an infinitely more vast and meaningful spectrum.  


Once we move past the fervent biological drive to mate and reproduce, a whole new world opens up.  We can focus on other things, without worrying about all the rules about impressing others and striving to present ourselves according to such standards.  We begin to be motivated by what we think and feel is right, rather than what everyone else thinks we should do or be.  The consequences of not following the herd become less fearful.  We become less sensitive to the judgments of others, because we’ve come to realize that those who judge us are not necessarily correct.  Everyone has a developing concept of the world and how it should be, and everyone is different.  Once you figure that out, it seems silly to expect ourselves to fit into any one “correct way” of being.  

It is up to us to decide how we should be, and the older we get, the more experience and information we integrate into our understanding, the more clear our personal concept of ourselves and how we want to be becomes.
This can also open us up to accepting others as they are, instead of imposing a false standard on them.

It can take a lifetime to realize how little fitting in to the current paradigm of physical appearance actually matters when it comes to living a satisfying life.
But our modern world is dominated by this younger ideal.
We can either buy into that ideal (which can often result in debilitating self loathing and dehumanizing criticism of others), or choose to discard that ideal and rely upon our own wisdom to determine what has true worth and meaning to us.

This shift in attitude is beautifully presented in this poem by Jenny Joseph:

With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

 Personally, I think getting old and “wearing purple” is something we should celebrate. 
It’s an accomplishment, getting this far - surviving all that life has thrown at you over the years, learning so much. I find that age has allowed me to see my life as a narrative - as a story unfolding.  From my older perspective I can look back on my life and see it's patterns and themes, witness the changes I have been through, and anticipate the new adventures and changes that future chapters will bring.

I am not offended at the idea of being an Old Lady.   I consider it a great honor, and strive to embrace that role with enthusiasm. 
I figure I’m far more likely to succeed in that than in trying to resist it.  Fighting a battle one cannot win is a waste of time and energy, and I choose not to spend the rest of my life in such futility. 
Instead, I’ll surrender to the continuation of my journey and work on appreciating it for what it is, and enjoying where it takes me, and practicing gratitude for the chance to experience the "golden years".  

  beautiful old lady