99% of the projects that we create with our In the Making teens go off without a hitch, but every so often we find ourselves scrambling to figure out a last-minute solution when something goes wrong. Alan Calpe, the teaching artist for this season’s Body/Building: Sculpture as Self-Portrait studio course, found himself in just such a predicament when his first big sculptural project hit some unexpected snags. He reflects on his experiences below.
—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator of Teen and Community Programs
One of our first projects in Body/Building had students working on self-portrait clay busts. What was meant to be a one-day exploratory activity introducing clay as a sculptural material became an impressive collection that will be a significant presence for our final exhibition! I wanted to talk more about our class’ experience with this project here, not only to highlight how wonderful it’s been witnessing their enjoyment and dedication, but also to really applaud them for their maturity and resiliency when things went a bit awry and could have meant busted disappointment and disaster!
On the day we introduced the bust project, it was clear right away that the students were really eager to work with clay, most having never touched the material before (some never experimenting with sculpture ever!) or ever having the challenge of creating a likeness of themselves. We began by showing them images of busts throughout history—ranging from Greek, Egyptian, and Japanese antiquities depicting gods and goddesses, Italian marble busts of arts patrons, and presidential busts from the U.S.—discussing the relationship that the traditional bust holds between memory and monumentality in creating historical narratives. We then looked at contemporary examples, including Janine Antoni, Jean Fabre, Jeff Koons, Marc Quin, and Jean Fabre, to see how artists have expanded on ideas of the bust in surprising ways.
Afterwards, we demonstrated the basics of facial proportions while introducing different clay sculpting tools and techniques. Next, each of the students received a Styrofoam headform as armature and, using mirrors and printed photos that we took of them, the students observed their faces and slowly began sculpting their self-portrait. At the end of the class period, great progress had been made, and Carrie and I knew we should really dedicate a second class to continue the work.
For this next class, we started first by bringing the students up to the MoMA galleries to view the display of Matisse’s busts of Jeannette. Looking at the series, students noticed the variety of ways that Matisse had captured the essence of his subject. It became a thoughtful conversation about issues of realism vs. abstraction, of fineness of details vs. crudeness of form, as different ways to express portraiture, and helped them decide their own path for completing their sculptures.
Back at the studio, Carrie and I were really impressed with the students progress and determination. It was made even more clear when we realized that, since we really couldn’t continue working of the project for a third class, many students were coming to the optional MoMA Open Studio Fridays, some even taking their busts home with them, to have more time to dedicate to their busts. We would arrive each week to see their new progress—some looking so incredibly realistic, some becoming more symbolic representations of themselves, all to great effect.
Then our potential disaster occurred. Using a self-drying clay (as we had no access to a kiln) we noticed that some of the students busts began cracking as the clay contracted against the stiff styrofoam underneath. Wracking our brains to stop the cracking, we scoured the internet and found suggestions that we apply a water-based sealant to stop the artwork from any further cracking and protect the forms’ integrity. After covering each bust completely in sealant, everything seemed to be fixed and looked amazing and complete. Happily, we stored the now-sealed busts away and congratulated each other on a job well done. However, disaster struck when we came back the following day to see the sealant had reacted badly to the clay, sucking even more of the moisture out, and cracking the busts even more dramatically! It felt as though all of the our work might possibly be for nothing…
Nervous and sad to report on this news to the students our following class, we showed them the damaged busts. The students responded in amazingly sophisticated ways. They noted that with any experimentation with materials, having to adjust, respond to accidents, and think on your feet, is an important part of the artistic process. Some even thought that the cracks were aesthetically interesting, bringing new psychology to the work! After brainstorming with the students, we decided to improvise yet again, and ran down to the local hardware store to pick up some acrylic caulk. By filling in the larger cracks, we started to make necessary structural repairs and let the students decide how they wanted to finish off the details.
We’re now thinking that we might actually paint the busts, either to disguise the structural repairs or to draw attention to them. We’re excited for everyone to see the self-portrait busts displayed in the upcoming final exhibition of teen artwork. Regardless of the final outcome, we know that it’ll be important for everybody to view the teens’ hard work, and show the public how they used the challenge of their “busted” busts as even further artistic inspiration.
The repaired busts, as well as all of the other teen-created artwork, will be on display during the Fall 2011 In the Making Teen Art Show from December 16–January 13 in the lower mezzanine of the Cullman Education Building.