power of a wave
After working with the bell-mouth for the spray booth, I returned to the task of finishing the drywall in my studio at ArtSpaceVincennes. Cutting the plaster board, rasping it, taping it mudding it, I was returning to a familiar friend. This friend is a difficult one to hang with because he is so obnoxious and insidious; he is difficult to love. For me he is a kind of soul mate that goes way back to Interlochen Arts Academy, my senior year of high school. Actually, it goes back even further. I am talking about working with plaster.
My first sculpture was a clay portrait of my little sister that I cast into plaster my sophomore year of high school. The following year, I attempted a life-sized figure pulling a rope in plaster, but realized that I could model veins in the arm, and I never went beyond that. I didn’t have the correct armature for building a figure that size, so the figure collapsed.
During my senior year I attended Interlochen Art Academy. It was its second year of existence (1963-1964). I had two or three hours of sculpture class daily, as well as my college prep academics, drawing class and painting class with Jean Parsons. That year I produced a larger than life-size female figure using burlap and plaster on a welded steel armature. After that I created a five foot abstract piece, forty inches in diameter that weighed 1100 pounds. It was supported on a steel armature welded to a massive steel pipe planted in a concrete stand
After working on the figure so long, it was exciting to work freely with a whole different approach to “observation” and getting the form “right”. Unlike with the figure, which required me to observe what was “out there”, the model who posed for us, I instead worked imaginatively and gesturally. I was interested in energy as reflected by the abstract forms I could produce with plaster. I mixed one or two buckets of plaster at a time stirring the plaster with my hands. The water was freezing cold, as my work space also was, in a plastic covered patio which shielded me only some from the 20 below zero temperatures of northern Michigan outside. The bucket of plaster would warm up as it began to set, releasing steam that rose in the harsh light of a single, bare incandescent bulb available as my only light source. The black plastic on the walls would rattle with the wind, and its dark shadows and absence of reflections created a dramatic and mysterious atmosphere that reminded me of photographs of Rodin’s sculpture and Michelangelo’s.
Initially, the assignment was to create a small clay model with our hands. The idea for this piece began with only an instinctive squeeze of the clay that produced the negative impression of my closing fist. However, as my work continued, the medium of plaster, the process of mixing it and applying it introduced the notion of energy, movement, the visual potential of life within a form, and composing surprises and delights for the eye as one walked around this massive plaster piece.
I would mix the plaster quickly until it began to set up. At that point I had only two to three minutes to use it. I was forced to work swiftly with broad gestures and huge masses of plaster in my hands. I would slap the plaster where I needed it and with a swipe of my hands or entire arm I would attempt to record my body’s movement with the setting plaster. The forms were beautifully organic and full of energy and whale-like masses that the previous figure study lacked. To understand those forms I began to stir water in a large container and feel the water’s energy through my hands as my stirring changed direction. I would try to replicate that sense of energy visually with the setting plaster.
Breaking the plaster, cutting it with saws and chisels, sanding it with pieces of window screen and rasps when it was hard and dry connected me with nature in an entirely different way. It became a geological experience. I fractured and eroded the stone-like material. The resisting plaster recorded tool marks and revealed cavities from air pockets that were unintentionally exposed, like nature’s accidents. These marks of the maker, these snapshots of my energy preserved seemed to have a life of their own, as one might find in fossils. I titled the piece Power of a Wave, a reference to that unseen living force of nature I had latched onto with my imagination.
At the end of the year, my poor family had to rent a trailer to haul the piece home. The size and weight of the work was far more memorable for them than the intellectual and artistic lessons I gained from creating the piece. In the end it disintegrated in our cold garage and was discarded. It was not a “good” piece of sculpture. I never achieved the control I was striving for. But the lessons echo strongly in my heart as if I discovered them this morning.
How many tax payers, school administrators, politicians and school boards would necessarily appreciate the importance of these lessons by appropriating the expense of materials such as plaster, clay, paint and a suitable place to use these materials in public schools? I was lucky to have been supported in my drive and interest in art by Elsie Cool, my instructor at Fremont High. She did her best to provide opportunities, but also encouraged me to find greater possibility by entering the private boarding school at Interlochen. I was lucky to have had Jean Parsons and Jon Rush, who flew weekly to Interlochen from the University of Michigan to guide me in my sculpture. In short the people who control the funding are rarely the ones who understand the true needs of education.
It seems right, as I return to a state of complete focus on my art once again, 50 years later, that I also return to my old friend, plaster, who I got to know by a crazy chance and the support of a few wonderful people through Power of a Wave. As annoying as he is, I learned from the old fart, something unique about myself. He helped me, after all, through a sort of intellectual and artistic coming of age on which to build my future and I find myself, now, still applying those lessons.