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What bronze sculptures am I working on? What exhibitions and events are coming up? My blog tells you everything that's happening in my life as a sculptor.

Vanessa Pooley bronze sculptor

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Large Sculpture That Wasn't (Part Two)

(This is Part Two in a two part series about the development of a recent sculpture. Read Part One to get caught up.)

Coming back into the studio soon after I repositioned the arm, I noticed a distinct sagging of the structures. In fact the whole thing was beginning to collapse.  The clay was obviously too soft to hold its weight and I had placed much too much wet clay higher up for it to support itself.  I took emergency measures – I chocked up each part with logs of fire wood.

Supporting the sagging clay with firewood

Then I left the clay uncovered for 24 hours so that it could gain strength from drying and hardening somewhat.

After this I went back to working on the sculpture a little more tentatively always with an eye to its ability to support itself and with a haunting feeling that perhaps I was asking too much of it to carry its enormous weight. I thought of my mother-in-law, the sculptor Sally Arnup, and her carefully planned and executed armatures... that’s the proper way to make a sculpture. In this case, I continued on with a constant shilly-shallying about the positioning of both arms. On and off they went, and up and down... Arms, hands and head: these are always areas of difficulty for me that require many alterations. This sculpture was more complex than normal since working on this scale meant that moving an arm might mean moving 20 kg of clay and when elevated, of course, this has to be well stuck on!

After weeks of getting most of my attention in the studio, this piece was coming on and sort of resolving itself. At this point, I had an open studio and I invited people to comment on it.

Most people were, as usual, very polite but nonetheless having this external feedback brought about a clearer view of the piece. I could suddenly see the head was in the wrong place and much too small so I chopped it off. This gave a nice opportunity to work on the skull and face separately and sort out its symmetry issues, etc.  The head must have weighed about 25 kgs but I repositioned it in a much better place along with the arms once more. It was soon after this that that the sculpture started to collapse again, but this time at virtually every joint. This is normally terminal for a clay sculpture. So this time chocs of wood would not have been enough. To save it I began hollowing out the top half of the figure so as to decrease the pressure from the weight of clay

Fighting to save the structure from collapse, I hollowed out the top of the figure

Normally I would not hollow out a sculpture until I was truly happy that it was virtually finished and all the forms were in the right place doing the right thing… But the weight of wet clay was so considerable that the whole thing would have fallen to the floor if not quickly reduced in bulk.

Once hollowed I again I left the piece to recover by hardening it still more in the air for a couple of days. It became firm enough to be workable and I finished modelling the forms as quickly as I could. I thought I had resolved the sculpture’s aesthetic problems, and it was standing well, so I continued hollowing it out all the way down and let it dry out completely. To complete this hollowing process the sculpture needed to be turned on its side so that it could also be hollowed from underneath.

Earlier I removed the head entirely

It’s terribly awkward picking up a sculpture in this semi hard state since it is easily damaged. Fortunately I have strong sons and a husband who help me at these tricky times.

I work something like a ceramicist in that I dry my clay sculptures out and fire then them in a kiln before taking them to be cast in bronze. It takes at least a month to completely dry a large sculpture like this and at the dry stage it is about as brittle as a cooked pastry base. I don’t have my own kiln for firing so have to transport the dried clay figures by car to a friendly ceramics studio. This is always the most hazardous stage because when handling the sculptures in and out of the car and transporting them over potholes is usually when the unfired clay is broken. With this piece being so much larger it was very tricky just picking it up. And because of the awkwardness of its weight we left it on its side to dry. When it came time to fire the sculpture, my family helped me to get it into the car with some difficulty. There it remained on its side, much safer that way for transportation and it was too tall anyway to stand up in the car anyway.

The final sculpture, before we transported it to be fired

I had booked this sculpture in to be fired by Steve at Suffolk Potteries 20 miles away and we encountered very few potholes on the journey there so arrived with the piece there in tact. Steve was ready and waiting to help my husband and I get the sculpture out of the car and on to a trolley. We managed to lift it and put it upright. This was the first time I had seen it standing up for about two months. I stood back and realised that the sculpture will really wasn’t working. It had an unfortunate lean to it and just didn’t feel properly resolved. Looking at it now gave me a sinking feeling... It’s not possible to work on clay once it has fully dried out. So what to do? A fired sculpture like this would, like any fired ceramic, survive for many years and take up a lot of studio space… I asked the boys what they thought of it and as ever they were polite but I could tell they weren’t crazy about it either. So we took a mallette to it and smashed it up.

We filled 10 plastic tubs with heavy broken shards of dry clay and brought them home.

The remains of the shattered sculpture

Now all these chunks have been soaked in water to be recycled and then manipulated into the sausage shapes I like to work with. About half of that clay has already gone into my latest sculpture, a large-ish upright female figure with two children on her lap. The circle of life borne out in clay.