Messing with Model Building

To better plan for my thesis show, and see multiple possibilities, I have created a variety of small scale models using the laser cutter and 3D printer. Some of these models have been enlarged like the ones below, using wood and plexi glass. These larger models can support small maquette sculptures and allow me to see more possible ideas.


Here, I have laid out all the laser cut parts of the wood model to stain them. I then glued the sections together, and added plexi glass to one version. These displays are influenced by natural history museum displays that use walnut pedestals with molding, and glass display cases.


The Paris Natural History Museum, Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology

Here, you can see the way I have started to use these traditional displays to create more opportunities for discovery and wonder. Cutting the windows in the molding of the pedestal has provided a new and unexpected place to create context for the animals. I use some of my animal toys as place holders for the future sculptures, as well as the maquettes I have been working on. These slightly larger models also allow me to play with 3D prints, grass flocking, bones, and other objects.



This is one of my first attempts at designing the gallery space for my thesis exhibition. After conferences with my committee members, and chair Nan Smith, I have made some interesting discoveries. The pedestals and the furniture which I first thought to be very different forms of display, seem to be able to work together in the same space. I have also found that the display cases do not have to exist on their own, but could interact with the pedestals.


I have enjoyed thinking about the space for my thesis in terms of a natural history museum display, or room of dioramas. This would be a rectilinear space, with pieces along the sides in a U-shape, with a focal piece at the back in the center. I will continue to develop my plans using these models as I move forward with the ideas for each piece.


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Playing with Porcelain

This week I am testing casting slip as part of investigating porcelain as an option for my ceramic furniture. First, I tested the casting slip to see how it fired using these furniture molds.


The tests revealed that the NS-124 Antique White Porcelain Slip by Laguna had the best surface at cone six. The table leg molds I had needed to be re-made because they were designed for press molding, not slip casting. I pressed the the table leg again, and made it in one piece to set up for molding. Here, the table leg is set up with clay to make sure that the plaster only casts one section.


After one side is cast, the mold is keyed and soaped with release agent so that the next piece can be cast. With these carvings I have to be careful not to make them too deep or complex so that the plaster doesn’t lock onto the forms.


The mold of the complete table leg is much larger and heavier than the press molds. I had to use heavy duty straps to keep it tight enough to hold the amount of slip that had to be poured in to fill it. I filled the mold with it inside a bucket just in case of a leak.


Here you can see the finished cast ready to remove from the mold. The cast will have to be cleaned up and have the seam lines removed, but this process will allow me to create detailed porcelain table legs very quickly.


The next stages of problem solving will involve creating a table top that is also slip cast and works with the legs. I will also have to deal with possible slumping of the porcelain during firing, and maybe create some firing supports to combat this. I will have to re-mold the figure heads like the dodo, and other small sprig pieces to work with the casting slip.

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Laser Cutting Display Models

20170529_173556I used the laser cutter to create scale models of different display method ideas. Some were larger (about 6-8” versions) to allow for clay maquettes to interact with the display option. These were made of 1/4” plywood and plexi glass.


The laser cutter allows me to quickly cut out scale models in different materials of the designs that I create in AutoCad. These models are life scale in AutoCad, but can be easily changed to any scale in proportion.


20170518_002234I also created small scale models of these pedestals to be used in the gallery model. Here are some shots showing how the different display options work in the gallery model. To create the woodgrain texture on the mat board I create a photoshop file of the texture/image and then spray adhesive the color prints onto the mat board before cutting.




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Animal Attitude

As part of planning my thesis show I am creating gesture studies of different prehistoric mammals to help me decide which to use as subjects.

This process starts with sketching particular animals in different gestures. I often base these gestures on observing modern day animals and drawing from life at zoos and natural history museums.


Asian Elephant drinking at the San Diego Zoo


From these sketches and reference images I practice the proportions and musculature of each animal while investigating different expressions in gestures. These are very quick, timed studies that are made solid and then carved and refined once the clay has stiffened.


Ground Sloth Skeleton at the San Diego Natural History Museum


These gestures and animals lead to ideas for ways to introduce a human object. Here are some gesture and expression studies for this piece which features a semi-aquatic sloth enjoying a rococo style bath tub.


These maquettes are sometimes larger and more detailed. This allows me to get an idea  of how I might build a larger version and allows for plans to scale up the gesture.


I often make larger studies of an animal’s head to work out different facial expressions and the gaze of the animal.


I am specifically choosing to work with animals that have very strange features. I find that this increases the viewer’s curiosity about the animal. These features also speak to the animals’ amazing ability to evolve and adapt. Sivatherium is a prehistoric giraffe that exhibits the evolution of the long neck over millions of years.


The Evolution of the Giraffe


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Setting the Scene: Graduate Research on the Picturesque Aesthetic

This year I have been researching the picturesque aesthetic as applied to displays for my ceramic sculptures. At first, the term picturesque was applied to both a real landscape that was “fit to be made into a picture”, and the painting that depicted that landscape.

Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill)_Cole_1825

Dioramas use many elements of the picturesque aesthetic to create a scene. They create a natural artifice, a man made landscape that seems natural, even the animals are posed by the taxidermist to seem to be performing natural behaviors. I also discovered in reading about the picturesque aesthetic, that certain animals are more picturesque than others. The deer for instance, is one of the most picturesque animals because of the delicacy in their legs and antlers, and its connection to the woods. Other animals become picturesque with age. A pristine muscled stallion is smooth and beautiful, while a weathered work horse is seen as rougher, and therefore more picturesque.

20160630_121712The intention of dioramas in natural history museums is to educate and entertain, while preserving a snapshot a specific animal and its habitat. The history of the diorama is a long one, and the earliest dioramas were connected with the first movements in environmentalism, and the creation of the national parks.


These distinctions can also be made about the picturesque and the sublime. Zdeněk Burian is one of my favorite paleoartists, he was Czech, and illustrated many books on prehistoric life in the 1940’s. His reconstructions had a major impact on paleontology at the time, they gave visual clues that helped inform scientific theories. The idea of a prehistoric world at first seems more sublime, nature run wild, unchecked, enormous, and overwhelming, even terrifying to a human. But Burian’s work is in the picturesque mode.

These are pleasurable windows into the past. The wildness has been softened, idealized, and made to be inviting. The scene frames the action of animals, as though they are actors in a play. The animals are intelligent, realistic, and wonderfully strange. The illusion is convincing, as if you could dream yourself there, and strolling through the ancient past would be like strolling through a meadow. The idea of picturesque travel in the eighteenth century was meant to arouse emotion through nature, and suspend thought. This experience of nature is felt, not analyzed.


Pierre-Denis Martin, 1714
The Fountain of Apollo and the Grand Canal at Versailles 

This way of viewing nature came about in the eighteenth century, along with the influence of the English garden in France. At first, nature at Versailles was controlled, as was everything in the world, by the king and the ancient regime. Geometry, symmetry, and parallel lines ruled over all. But as the picturesque view of nature gained popularity with the new regime, it led to gardens that were full of surprise and greenery allowed to grow freely, and aligned itself with the freedom and fantasy of the Rococo style. Theaters gained popularity as a mode of escape from daily life. Claude-Henri Watelet said, “The garden was valuable to the extent that it sustained a state of wonder.”

As the popularity of extravagance and distraction grew, the aristocracy lost control, and fell to revolution.


                                                                Hubert Robert, 1802                                                                   The Tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at Ermenonville

The overgrown classical ruins and fabriques used in the picturesque style idealize the past, but at the same time foreshadow the cyclical nature of history and time, and the inevitable rise and fall of civilization. They represent the idea of nostalgia that was popularized during the eighteenth century.


Frederick Edwin Church, 1873
Syra by the Sea


Hubert Robert, 1753
The Bathing Pool

These partially hidden structures are designed to trigger the imagination, and a longing for the past. This in itself is an illusion, because while the past may seem glorious, it often was not. There is an interesting contradiction that happens in picturesque gardens when ruins are fabricated to create a sense of this longing, and purposefully overgrown by nature to seem like remains of grand human achievement. This use of ruins also causes the viewer to question their own existence, and as Diderot states, “reminds us of the instability of human things”.


Passé Doré
Ceramic, Flocking, Gold Leaf, Wax
30’’h x 24’’w x 18’’d

This piece attempts to use furniture to frame a three dimensional picturesque scene. I am interested in the way this removes the animal sculpture from the pedestal, and gives it an environment with more context and meaning. Here, the candles in the chandelier symbolize the passage of time, while the overgrown marble floor provides the same feelings as the picturesque ruins that have been reclaimed by nature.


There is an anticipatory narrative in this piece, allowing the viewer to make up the story for themselves. I think that this provides a deeper connection with the animal. The strange features of this prehistoric elephant called a gomphothere also inspire curiosity and fascination in order to spark the imagination.


Merveilles Perdues
Ceramic, Flocking, Gold Leaf
36’’h x 22’’w x 12’’d

This fantastical rock formation was another way of framing a scene, and separating the animal from the pedestal. The miniature scale of the carriage gives a grand scale to the animal, while his comical interaction reveals the humor in the paradox of the scene. Making the carriage seem buried in the earth was also a nice visual connection to the way fossils emerge, and the excitement when they are recovered.


Red in Tooth and Claw
Ceramic, Wood, Gold Leaf, Fabric, Resin
54’’h x 42’’w x 20’’d

Thylacosmilus was a prehistoric marsupial predator that lived in South America. I wanted to make an animal that had more of an impact on its environment. I chose this gesture so that the cat could be clawing into a rococo cushion.

This piece uses the ceramic furniture to display the animal instead of the pedestal. These ceramic table legs are attached to a CNC milled wooden top. The traditional rococo carvings are replaced with natural history motifs. I used ferns instead of acanthus leaves, nautilus shells, horseshoe crabs, and prehistory icons like the dodo. The viewer’s close attention is rewarded with these details.

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Material Research

In my second year of graduate school, I researched the use of non ceramic materials as a way to create non-fragile table legs. I learned to make two-piece silicone molds for cast resin.


Here, the finished sculpted wet clay table legs are set up with a clay coddle that extends to the halfway point of the form. I use plastic button keys here as a way of making sure the finished mold locks together well. A section of all thread bolt at the top of the leg can be molded as part of the leg for attaching the cast resin to a ceramic table top using a nut. When making silicone molds, undercuts and complex forms do not impede the mold being removed from the cast because the mold material is flexible. Some silicone rubbers are able to even turn inside out to release a cast, and return to original shape.

For my molds I used Reynold’s Advanced MaterialsRebound 40 silicone. This is a platinum cure silicone, which is more durable and lasts longer than a tin cure. It can be easily measured and mixed by a volume ratio of equal parts A and B. The Rebound 40 product is slightly more rigid than the Rebound 25, again allowing for more durability and strength with less possibility of tearing.


The first layer of rubber that is applied is called a print coat, or stipple coat. This is because it is the thinnest, and most liquid state of the rubber, meant to capture all details and reduce the amount of air bubbles on the surface. A cut off chip brush can be a useful tool for stippling the rubber to reduce air bubbles. This coat is often very runny, and flows easily over details, but can become thick in lower places if not carefully controlled.


With each successive coat, a thickener called THI-VEX is added to the silicone. Only a few drops is necessary to thicken the rubber so it stays on the high points of the original being molded. Coats can be applied about every 20-30 minutes once the rubber becomes tacky to the touch. Once 3-4 coats are applied, the mother mold can be applied to the first side. For a mother mold material I used Free Form Air. This is a two part kneedable epoxy dough, which when mixed together hardens to a durable rock hard shell that supports the rubber in its original form for casting. Free Form Air is also very lightweight and can even float in water after hardening. The benefit of this is that large molds are not heavy or cumbersome as they would be with a plaster mother mold. This is also a safer, easier material to use than a resin fiberglass mother mold.


A release called Sonite Wax is used as a barrier between the silicone and the epoxy mother mold. This prevents the epoxy from sticking to the silicone, or anything else it touches. The epoxy can be pancaked out into thin, even slabs to reduce the weight of the mother mold even further. As the epoxy sets, it can be smoothed with isopropyl alcohol. It can also be surformed, sanded, and drilled after setting. This can allow the use of bolts to tighten the mold halves together, and removal of sharp edges on the mother mold.


After 24 hours, the epoxy is set, and the process is able to be repeated on the other side. I used Sonite Wax as a release between the two silicone halves of the mold. Silicone releases from almost any other material easily, except it always sticks to itself. If you forget the release between the silicone halves of the mold it will not come apart. There are two types of silicone bonds to other materials, mechanical and chemical. In a potential mechanical bond, Sonite Wax can seal a porous material to prevent the silicone from locking into it. With a chemical bond, such as silicone to silicone, a release spray may be needed to seal the material, such as Ease Release 200.


A second mother mold of epoxy is added to this side once the silicone has set. If too thin, the epoxy will always stick to itself, and can be applied once the first layer has set up.


Once the molds were complete, I used rubber bands to bind the two halves, and poured liquid resin into them. The resin I used is called Smooth Cast Onyx and has an opaque black color. Resin always takes on the surface of the original molded material. If the original material is glossy or shiny, the resin cast will be also. Because my table legs were made of wet clay, the resin takes on that wet clay sheen, but is not shiny.


Smooth Cast Onyx FAST sets hard in about 15 minutes and has a pot life of about 2.5 minutes. With this material I was able to replicate the table leg forms very quickly. Each leg is cast in two parts (top and bottom), and had to be attached. First, I used a dremel tool and sandpaper to remove the resin seam lines from the side of the legs, and a band saw to cut off the blocks on the ends created by the pouring gates on the molds. I drilled holes in each section and glued metal pins between them. The seam was filled in with Apoxie Sculpt (Black) to match the resin. This sculptable, kneadable epoxy smooths with water, and can be easily carved and textured to match the carvings at the seam line.


Here you can see how the legs are designed to accompany a ceramic table top. Holes were drilled in the clay to allow the threaded bolts on the legs to push through and be attached securely to the fired ceramic with a nut.


The finished result. The ceramic glaze matched the resin table legs well, but the length, and thinness of the legs caused them to be springy, and not hold up any weight besides the table top. This was a good experiment to see how far I could push these thin, curvilinear legs with another material that is not as fragile as clay.


I also experimented with the same materials to make a mold of a cow vertebrae bone. I cast this in resin mixed with Reynold’s Bronze Powder to create a cold cast bronze effect. Real bronze powder is mixed with resin and painted in each half of the mold as a gel coat. The mold can be put together and the gel coat backed with the Onyx resin. The finished cast can be polished to look like cast bronze.


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NCECA Graduate Fellowship Research

Los Angeles: 30,000 BCE.

July 4, 2016


I have made it to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles! I have already had an enjoyable week here making studies of the Columbian Mammoth. These sculptural reconstructions were created for Hancock Park at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in 1968. Local artist Howard Ball towed the life size mammoths down Wilshire boulevard with his VW Bug. They are a permanent installation in the tar lake a man made lake that dates back to the 1800’s when this area was mined for asphalt. The reconstructions show a family group, the female mammoth is trapped in the tar while the male and young mammoth are helpless to pull her free. The tar creates so much suction that a mere two inches was enough to trap a 15,000 pound mammoth. The first fossils discovered at the tar pits were from that of a saber-toothed cat (by far one of the most common animals found here) by geologist William Denton in 1875.


This is one of the more complete Columbian Mammoth skeletons found at La Brea. The tusks in this display are cast resin. Most tusks do not survive fossilization because they are made of dentin like teeth, and tend to decay and fall apart until only small sections and pieces can be found. Zed, a recent discovery, is the first mammoth to be found at La Brea with intact tusks, and over 80% of his skeleton has been recovered. Zed is part of Project 23, the current excavation being worked on at La Brea.


When digging a parking structure next door, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art discovered Zed among hundreds of other fossils just beneath the surface. In order to save the fossils and avoid impeding construction, the La Brea Tar Pits Museum organized the salvage of 16 fossil deposits into 23 crates. This allows the excavators to take their time preserving and cataloguing each of the hundreds of thousands of fossils that were found. The current crate #14 has been being excavated slowly over the last six years, and originally weighed 83,000 pounds.


This is pit 91, one of the regular excavation sites at the tar pits. The current grid contained bones from a giant sloth, dire wolf, and prehistoric horse.

More about Mammoths and Zed

July 11, 2016


The Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) lived 20-40,000 years ago in North and South America. The largest Columbian Mammoths were 13 ft. tall, most had an average height of 12 ft.  Scientists believe that mammoths lived in female led herds just like today’s elephants. The skeletons of male mammoths are often isolated, suggesting that they lived apart from herds. Most of the mammoths found at the tar pits were males, suggesting that there were no family members to help pull them from an asphalt seep.


Studies from my sketchbook of the mammoth currently on display at the La Brea Tar Pits museum. Sketching the articulated skeleton helps me understand where muscles attach to bone, as well as proportions and the locations of joints.


It was not possible for me to photograph Zed’s fossil remains personally, since this is ongoing research, but I was able to find images online of what the lab has uncovered so far. This is Zed’s lower jaw. The scientists look at the molars to determine the age of a mammoth. Mammoth molars regrow at even increments throughout their lives. Using this information scientists determined from Zed’s very complete jaw that the was between the ages of 47-51 when he died.


Zed’s skull still in the field jacket is at this point too fragile to be removed completely.


One of Zed’s tusks, still in the field jacket on display at the museum.


This is one of Zed’s tusks that has been prepared so far. It is the most complete mammoth tusk to be found at this site. Mammoth experts have examined this tusk to determine seasonal variations from the time that Zed lived down to the day. Because of the way tusks grow, they provide information about Zed’s nutrition throughout his life. It is likely mammoth bulls used their tusks to fight for mating rights. Zed has several healed injuries that could have come from this type of fighting. Scientists also believe that because Zed showed signs of internal damage that this could have been his cause of death. Zed did not get stuck in an asphalt seep. His bones are only partially pro-mineralized, not entirely bone or fossil, and this is extremely rare. Because of the way he died, not in asphalt, Zed was also found mostly in an anatomical position another rarity at the tar pits.

Dissecting the Diorama

July 18, 2016

The word diorama literally means “to see through”. In natural history museums they provide a window into a time and place, preserving the animals in their natural habitats. Dioramas both educate and entertain, using visual elements and composition, as well as illusions of perspective.


The dioramas at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History are beautifully designed windows into ecosystems and animals from around the world. Many of the animals displayed are critically endangered now. The dramatic landscapes and compositions of these displays suspend disbelief placing the viewer up close to places and animals they might not otherwise experience in the wild.


I was able to interview Tim Bovard, the museum’s taxidermist who works on many of these exhibits. His office was full of these “death masks”, casts taken from the specimens to preserve features and details in the final taxidermy. Tim has a degree in vertebrate zoology in addition to an art background creating exhibits for museums.His understanding of animal anatomy helps him in his work.



Scale models are created for each diorama. Decisions are made about showing family groups, these allow for comparisons between male and female, as well as the young of a particular species. A small study for the background is usually done on location and then used as reference along with photos for the large background mural. Plant life, and other elements of habitat are also gathered and cast or molded for use in the diorama.


Each mural is divided into sections separating the foreground from the middle ground and background. The red line here determines what will be three dimensional from the painted background. Tim says that a “drop off” is often used to create an illusion of greater space between these areas. This sometimes means an actual physical drop off between the 3D elements and 2D background. The strategic placement of plant life and rocks can make the transition almost seamless. This sense of space is very important to drawing the viewer into each scene, and creating an immersive environment. Tim also places small animals, or little discoveries as he calls them in each scene. So as you look at the larger animals you are surprised by a bird, or snake hidden nearby.


Each diorama is created with a support structure of wire frame over wood underneath. The rocks are usually a combination of plaster and aggregate that gets painted later on. Everything in a diorama is scientifically accurate to the location being portrayed. Real leaves are molded in plaster and then vaccu-formed and cut to create accurate foliage on trees. Real rocks are used as reference for sculptures. There is also a narrative element to this method of display, combining art and science to tell a story.

To learn more about he process behind the dioramas at the LA Natural History Museum, watch these videos.

Sketching Studies

July 25, 2016

The dioramas were extremely helpful for studying a variety of animals. Many of the taxidermy forms have exaggerated muscles, and the interesting gestures the animals are held in are perfect for sketching.


I also have also been using the Age of Mammals exhibit at the museum to study prehistoric animal skeletons, and then reconstruct that animal in a sketch.


The skeletons were also helpful in studying bone structure and proportions of these animals.


Even some time spent at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park helped me better understand elephant movement and walking gestures for my mammoth sculpture.


Making a Mammoth

July 31, 2016

Now that I am back in the studio, I have started working on a mammoth sculpture based on my research. I always start out with some rough maquettes and small studies for gesture, musculature, and proportions.


I’m using the Asian elephant as a reference for anatomy. This is the closest living relative to the Columbian mammoth, and shares the most common physical traits. I have made large print outs of the mammoth skeleton along with images of the Asian elephant, and Asian elephant skeleton for comparison. Since the largest Columbian Mammoth was 14 feet tall, my sculpture will be 14 inches tall. Using the large print of the skeleton as a reference I can measure proportion and create an accurate reconstruction.


The sculpture is carved from a solid block of clay, and first I rough out the general shape.


I carve the block and add clay to areas until the proportions and musculature are correct.


Once the anatomy has been defined I let the sculpture dry out for hollowing. The block underneath the legs can be removed as the clay dries and the legs are strong enough to hold the weight of the body. All the detail and texture, and small parts like the ears and tail, will be done after the piece is hollowed.

Finishing Touches

August 8, 2016

Cutting the mammoth into sections for hollowing.



Once the hollow pieces are back together, I am able to sculpt all the details and add small delicate features like the ears and tail. The tusks will be added later, and either be made of porcelain or painted resin.


While finishing this piece I have been reading books that focus on popular extinction theory for large mammals like mammoths. I am very interested in the overkill theory that supports the idea that megafauna extinctions were caused by humans. The book Once and Future Giants by Sharon Levy explores this theory and its connections to modern day megafauna extinctions. By reading this I have learned that there are a lot of connections between the Pleistocene world that these mammoths lived in, and the climate change and human impact that affects our planet today. This research has also introduced me to scientists that are foremost in the field for they study of mammoths. I am planning to contact and interview these scientists to learn more about important features and evolution of mammoths. For example, I will be contacting an expert in mammoth tusks to find out the most common shape and size of mammoth tusks for my sculpture.


Overall, it has been a great summer of research and exploration. Seeing these specimens in person, and studying natural history museum displays will be very important to my upcoming artworks.

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