Atlas: He Who Shoulders the Earth
This spring I began working with large scale solid building. This piece, Atlas, measures about 2.5 feet at the shoulder and is roughly 3.5 feet in length. Here I will explain the methods I used in creating and firing this large figure.
Solid Building Process
I began by making a maquette, and doing some sketches. Source imagery is very important to me for sculpting. However, this particular animal, known as Chalicatherium, was a prehistoric mammal from the Neogene period. Although I had images of skeletons, and fossilized remains, I could not view this animal living. To help me sculpt a believable anatomy for this creature, I looked to its closest relatives, and present day animals with similar anatomical structure.
Chalicatherium’s closest relative today is the horse. I used elements of the horse in the facial structure, as well as the neck and chest. This animal also walked very similarly to a gorilla, which allowed me to get an idea of the way their spine and front legs might have looked. Chalicatherium also had very long, claws on its front feet for pulling down tree branches. These claws were turned under, much like a three toed tree sloth. The animals I referenced were more familiar to me, and could be studied more easily.
Solid building proved to be a little tricky at first. After struggling with designing an armature that would work on the large scale, I came up with this slightly altered method. I built the large piece much the same way I built the maquettes, by first building up a solid block of clay (about 300lbs. is shown here), and carving the legs out later. I also hammered dowel rods down into this large mass of clay to give me an idea of the gesture and angle of the legs. Once this clay was stiffened, I was able to add more clay on top, and sculpt the form of the animal.
The next step in the process added about 300 more pounds of clay to the base. This solid building technique allowed me to work very fast. This form was roughed out in about two days. The best way I found to work the clay was with a paddle and small boards that beat the clay into shape, and then using loop tools to carve the shape of the legs away from the solid base. The piece must also be sprayed down constantly to keep the clay workable.
By the third day of solid wetwork, I had achieved the form and gesture that I wanted, and carved out some of the muscles and rough details of the feet, and face. This stage was allowed to stiffen until leather hard for around four days. Once the entire piece was evenly dried to leather hard, I began to cut the piece into sections to be hollowed.
On the left is a section of the head after hollowing. Each section was cut from the solid piece and then hollowed to a 1/4” thickness. The interior of the walls were smoothed and compressed to give the walls of the piece the most strength. On the right is a leg reassembled after hollowing. Each leg was cut into about five 4” sections, and then reattached as each section was hollowed.
On the top you can see the solid body, still on the support, but without legs. At this point the body was cut into two top sections of the back, and two bottom sections of the belly. These were then hollowed and compressed, shown in the image on the bottom.
The hollowed shells of the body could now be reassembled. I used a clay firing support underneath the belly which came from the original solid support structure. The shell of the body was supported by large pieces of foam until it could hold itself up. No internal structure was used in this piece. The structure relies solely on how compressed and thin the walls are.
Reattaching these pieces took about a week, and was very dependent on timing the dryness of the clay. Once the h0llowed pieces are completely reassembled, all of the detail work can be done. For this piece I chose to cover the surface in textures from various prehistoric fossils, as well as textures found in nature.
Many of these textures were made using press molds from bark and rocks. Others were made by pressing natural materials like branches and leaves into the surface of the clay.
This is the finished wetwork after the addition of all the details and textures. Here are a few detail images of some of various textures on the piece.
The piece was then bisque fired for about seven days. This slow firing carefully removed all water from the clay, and then slowly brought it to temperature in the kiln. By firing this slowly, and using firing supports under the belly and head, the piece only sustained small cracks during the first firing. Here is the piece as it came out of the bisque firing.
The piece was then glaze fired to cone 6 in order to achieve brighter colors. After the glaze firing I attached horse hair to the neck to contrast with the imagined surface and create a better sense of the piece as both living animal and spirit of the earth.