Wondrous Creatures in the Works

These are the animals that I am planning to create for my Thesis project Wondrous Creatures. Each of them has distinctly strange features that speak to their amazing ability to adapt and evolve. I recently saw a few of them in person in the exhibition Extreme Mammals, currently on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. These animals are each from different time periods and places. My thesis exhibition will arrange these sculptures so that the viewer is able to move further back in time, and across the world with each prehistoric beast they encounter.

 

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Uintatherium

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Uintatherium was one of the earliest mammals living 40-50 million years ago in North America. It belongs to a group known as odd toed ungulates which includes both rhinos and horses. Uintatherium was 11 feet long, and 5 feet high at the shoulder. Its strangest feature are the multiple bony horns that protrude from top of the skull. It also had dagger like canine teeth, even though it only ate plants.

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Stegotetrabelodon

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Stegotetrabelodon is a prehistoric elephant that lived 7-5 million years ago in Eurasia and Africa. It was over 13 feet high at the shoulder, and its strangest feature is a set of 4 tusks. Two long tusks curved upward from an elongated lower jaw, and two longer tusks curved downward from the upper jaw.

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Andrewsarchus

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All that was discovered of Andrewsarchus was the top of its 2 foot skull. Believed to be a large scavenger, Andrewsarchus was 6 feet high at the shoulder based on its skull. It is believed that its teeth would be able to bite through bone. It lived 48-37 million years ago in Mongolia. This is a particularly strange creature because it is actually related to whales, hippos and other artiodactyls.

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Sivatherium

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Sivatherium is a prehistoric giraffe closely related to the okapi that was 7 feet tall and lived in Africa and India around 5 million years ago. Its strangest features are large antler-like ossicones as well as being much bulkier and shorter in the neck than the modern giraffe.

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Thalassocnus

Thalassocnus

Thalassocnus is an extinct genus of semi-aquatic giant sloth that lived in South America 6 million years ago. Specimens have been found in Peru and Chile, which in the Miocene was a desert landscape with little plant life for sloths to eat. Over time, this sloth evolved a spoon like jaw in order to eat the marine plant life off the coast. It had increased bone thickness as well, and more elongated limbs, and was an unexpectedly good swimmer much like the modern polar bear.

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Summer Research

This summer I have been doing a lot of reading and research to prepare for writing my thesis. Here are some of the great sources I have found that relate to the topics of natural history, the age of wonder, nostalgia, animals in art, and theories of illusion in art.

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This book provides a narrative account of the many voyages and explorations that led to the founding of theories of natural selection, evolution, and the origin of species. This book is giving me some ideas of animal species that are connected to the most crucial evidence of evolution, like the giraffe.

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This book provides a biography and overview of the collection of David Wilson, who founded the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. The author compares the collection of Mr. Wilson to the 16th century “Cabinets of Wonder” to reveal the imaginative connections between art and science. I will be visiting the Museum of Jurassic Technology this summer while I am in California to see this amazing collection for myself.

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This book gave biographical accounts of various scientists that made important discoveries during the Age of Wonder (1750-1900). This has always been one of my favorite time periods in history, and it was great to see so many connections between my work and the ideas of this time period. Wonder was seen as the spark for scientific invention and advancement, and it was during this time that prehistoric animals were discovered along with many other natural wonders.

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This book is mostly about the author’s nostalgic connection to her home in Russia. However, she explains the history of nostalgia in a way that made a lot of sense to me. She also speculates on the importance of nostalgia as a part of society and history. This is always an element in my work, and it was great to find out that the kind of nostalgia that I use is called reflective nostalgia. This type of nostalgia is meant to reference a place and time that does not exist, and calls the idea of absolute truth into question.

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This is a section of John Berger’s book About Looking. This was a great read for anyone making art with animal subject matter. He talks a lot about the animal gaze, as well as how humans have lost touch with animals since the industrial revolution. I found a great connection to the 18th century in that the disappearance of animals and wilderness during the industrial revolution caused people to become nostalgic towards them.

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This is a complex study of the different types of illusion used in art, with an emphasis on French Rococo art. I found this to be helpful in explaining some of the impacts that illusion in art can have on the viewer.

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Steve Baker’s books review the animal as subject and metaphor in postmodern art. Picturing the Beast had a great section about the pleasure that people take in animal imagery, and how this connects to childhood movies and literature.

I have also been listing to some great TED Talks:

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Asian Elephant drinking at the San Diego Zoo

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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.

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Ground Sloth Skeleton at the San Diego Natural History Museum

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Frederick Edwin Church, 1873
Syra by the Sea

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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”.

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.

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

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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.

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

MerveillesPerdues_Detail1This 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.

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

Tooth&Claw_Detail1Thylacosmilus 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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