The First Elephant “Mask”

Whew.  Starting around the first week of June, I started an intense two months worth of work in the studio, fresh from my two week residency at Pilchuck Glass School.  I decided to work in the shop at San Diego State since my own personal studio was such a mess and since I had a new intern, Alicia Dietz, working with me, I knew I needed more space. The first week was spent spreading out my stuff that I made at Pilchuck, not exactly with intent to use any of them but just to have the experience soak in a bit and to see where it IMG_1084takes me.  I experimented with photos on glass – something I had wanted to do while I was working on the Executive Order 9066 series.  Now that I know that it can be done its something I’d like to do later.

While at Pilchuck I started a small paper pattern of an elephant head and when I got home I enlarged it on brown butcher paper and made a mockup out of thin luan plywood. Taking a cue from my stitched bark series I decided to continue to tie together the pieces.

I can’t believe it took me 50 days to make the mockups, cut out the templates, cut the wood, paint the pieces, stitch one of the masks together, finish, and figure out how to hang the pieces.  But I did make enough parts to make a total of five elephant “masks”.   You can see all the process photos in totality on my Flickr site.  But here I will explain what I did step by step. I was inspired by several motivators for doing this work.  I have always LOVED African masks, and especially the ones using animal forms.  I also have been a fan of Robert Brady’s work.  Bob is one of my cherished friends, and also probably my sternest critic.  When I was explaining my project he actually almost made me cry.  Hell I did cry but not in front of him.   I can’t remember the details now but I am determined to make some work that he might actually like.

templateThe first step was transferring my simple paper template into a larger one and then deciding where the parts were going to be cut.  I opted to abstract the form, and also make the individual parts nearly inorganic with hopes that in totality that it would come together organically.  Not sure if that made any sense.

The paper was so flimsy that I had to make the pattern out of thin luan plywood and then that model became the mockup.  This IMG_0275was probably a good idea anyway because I had to alter many of the parts and change the scale at this point.  Some of the pieces just were not fitting right – the transition from flat to 3-D required some adjustment.  Alicia asked me how I figured out how to make a flat drawing into a three dimensional form – I told her that it comes from learning how to sew clothes when I was in high school!  I really enjoyed sewing and it was probably my first connection to craft.  Now, I have not sewn anything in years.  I did get a sewing machine about 15 years ago but have not used it yet.

I also decided to attach the many parts with string. That turned out to be another trial – the paper string I had was too bulky and then the waxed heavy thread kept coming undone.  Finally tried a heavy gauged heavy waxed linen and that really did the trick.  I also got better at consistently tying square knots.  Right side over and under and then the left side over and under.  At first when I tied all the pieces together I was kind of bummed because it didn’t seem to stay put and it flattened out on the table.  But miraculously when it was mounted on IMG_0279the wall, all the pieces seemed to move in their proper positions.

Finally when I finished making the first mockup, I could see where changes could be made and what was nice about stitching is that I could cut apart pieces, recut the shapes and stitch it back on.  Other times I was able to add more to the ears and the trunk.   As the piece went through their many stages, other folks in the shop IMG_0361would make comments, like “oh it looks like a bat” or “oh are you making a scorpion – no wait it looks like a manta ray“. I then decided that I would make five of these, so I proceeded to cut more material.  Some of these are going to be made of solid wood, and others will be made of plywood.  Some are painted and textured and others will have images or drawings on the parts.   Then once the piece was on the wall, I had trouble visualizing the piece as a whole because of all the pieces, the pencil marks, etc, that I painted the thing so I could get a sense of the form.  While I was working on the piece I kept thinking about how the elephant tusks were being poached for use for religious artifacts for the Catholic faith.  One of the five will address this theme with the cruxifix icon.

IMG_1105So I worked on the first ‘real’ piece and here are some of the pictures in stages:  cut in pieces, painted in layers, tied, and then finished.  The trickiest part was keeping tabs on all the parts and remembering what went where. At some point I had code numbers on all of them, plus there was a “left” and a “right”.  I thought I could get away with leaving the numbers on the back but you can clearly see the back of this piece in some areas when its on the wall so I had to paint over the code.  The most boring and time consuming process was cutting out the pieces on the bandsaw, then sanding and cleaning up the edges.   (Especially since I was making parts for a total of five of these.  Each piece has about 80 parts)  The painting was done in three layers of color – the bandsaw cuts left a nice consistent texture, much like elephant skin, mostly along 20130709_134834the trunk it looked perfect.  then the pieces were sanded, drilled, and tied together.   As the pieces are tied together it sort of takes on a life of its own, at times becoming unwieldy, resistant, heavy and awkward.  I had been just threading the cord through the holes by twisting the ends before inserting through the hole but with great difficulty.   Alicia suggested looking for a needle big enough for the cord but small enough to fit in the holes.  DUH.  Why didn’t I think of that. Sure enough that needle 20130715_154356IMG_1137made the tying go so much faster.  The most challenging part of this project was making the hanging device for this odd shape.  Alicia and I brainstormed for what felt like WEEKS and made about ten prototypes.  Poor Alicia was the one that had to keep getting up on the stool and drilling and hanging and taking it off the wall, putting it back on, etc etc.  (my excuse is that I have a gimpy knee that started acting up while I was at Pilchuck.)  We finally got it to work but we had to resize it so it didn’t show.  We tried to resolve it before I attached the trunk.  But then we realized we needed the piece to float further away from the wall since the trunk curved inward, and the ears needed more room too.But we finally got it to work.  The day before Alicia left San Diego we were able to move all of my stuff back to my studio

IMG_1138and mounted the piece there so I could finish the other four masks during the rest of this summer.

In the meantime, while I was working 100% on the elephants, Alicia was starting four large Kanzashi comb pieces for an upcoming exhibition that I have next year.  But she did much more than that: she ran errands for me, ran up and down stairs or step stools for me, came up with solutions that I would have missed.  She also provided most of these photos as well.  I am not very good at documenting everything that I do with a camera and she was diligent about recording every step. I am grateful for her help in all areas but the photos were extra special for me.  Some of the blurry ones were obviously taken by me with my little iPhone (I don’t own a “real” camera) Again, I mention the Flickr site (click here) that you can check up on with all photos related to making the work for The wildLIFE Project.  I was very fortunate to have Alicia for my intern, in exchange for her assistance, I worked with her on developing an entirely different body of work that was based on five short one week assignments.  You can read all about her experiences on her blog, posted here.

About Alicia Dietz:  Alicia recently traded a pilot helmet for hand plane, following her passion for craft after a ten-year career as an officer and Blackhawk Helicopter Maintenance Test Pilot in the U.S. Army.  She served in Iraq and has been stationed all over the world, including Germany, Alaska, and Egypt. While seemingly two different lifetimes, her career in the Army unexpectedly prepared her to design and build. The discipline necessary to command soldiers and to test broken helicopters has translated into an astute attention to detail and an unwavering work ethic.  She currently lives in Richmond, VA and will begin her studies as a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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