One of my most recent pieces has been based on my research trip to the Paris Natural History Museum. This is the 20ft. tall giant ground sloth, or Megatherium that I studied there. Seeing this complete skeleton up close gave me a really good idea of how to go about sculpting this strange animal.
While there were once many different species of ground sloth that roamed North and South America, Megatherium was the largest. Living as far back as 2 million years ago, these sloths were not as slow as their living relatives the tree sloth. They could move quickly and because of their size they had few predators. These animals were omnivores as well and are believed to have scavenged for meat as well as vegetation.
Megatherium also had very long claws on its front and hind feet. It used these in self defense and to scrape leaves from the large tree branches. The giant sloth had feet and forepaws that rolled outward when it walked so that these long claws were turned upward and protected.
I started by doing some studies of the giant sloth’s anatomy and making a small version of the larger piece I wanted to make. This maquette often helps me make decisions about gesture and expression before I begin work on the larger piece.
This piece was about 2x the size of the maquette. Making a scale maquette helps me get proportions more accurate on the larger one. I try to multiply scale by 2 with most of my pieces to keep things simple. Above is the solid rough start of the large piece. I used a 24” h galvanized pipe with threading that screwed into a metal base attached to the board. This helped the clay have something to stick to. The weight of larger solid pieces can often make them collapse or sink in if the clay is wet enough, so even a simple armature can help a lot.
Here, more of the details have been roughed out, and all the anatomy and musculature is finished. This is usually the point where I hollow out a piece. This way no detail is lost or needs to be redone because of the hollowing process. I will leave making the claws until the very end because they will dry quickly and be the most delicate part of the piece.
I start by cutting off a small section first. Usually the head needs at least two sections so that the snout can be hollowed out. I hollow out the nose and then cut off and hollow out the head. After this I reattach the sections and continue hollowing the rest of the body the same way.
Hollowing larger body sections can be a bit daunting. I try and keep the wall thickness of my pieces between 1/2 and 1/4 inches. I start by drawing a line around where I want to start to be more careful with my carving. Once this line is reached I use a rib and smaller loop tools to make the walls as thin, even, and compressed as possible. This is what will hold up the piece with no other internal structures.
As I cut each section with the wire tool I am able to lift it right off the armature pole in the center. I always make sure that the piece is completely leatherhard before hollowing. This helps keep the walls from moving as I hollow, so the piece fits back together well. I keep areas like feet, tail and arms wrapped up as I hollow so that they don’t get too dry.
I start reattaching the hollowed sections of the body on a new board. For large pieces I often cut a piece of drywall to fit the piece and once it is reassembled I fire it on the drywall. The paper burns out but the plaster on the inside stays and provides support for the sculpture during the loading and the firing. Here, the hollow bottom and middle sections have been reattached first, and the rest of the piece stacks on, much like a handbuilt pot.
Here you can see the thinness of the walls and the lack of internal supports. The piece will support itself if the walls are compressed and even. I put the arms on last because they add weight to the front of the piece. When this sculpture was solid clay it weighed around 200 lbs., after hollowing it weighs around 45lbs.
I make sure to slip and score each section to attach them. This way the slip goes in between the scratch marks in each side of the sections and acts like glue. I made a small support for the belly of this piece using a solid piece of clay that I poke holes in so it drys quickly. This piece was front heavy, and the support at the belly kept it from leaning forward during the firing. I also pre-cut a groove for the leather strap on the muzzle of this piece. This gives me a place to glue in non-ceramic materials, and makes it seem as though the leather strap is very tight against the animal’s flesh.
Here, the piece is finished and ready for firing. The claws were each sculpted individually and then slipped and scored into holes in each of the toes and fingers. More hair texture was added as well. I then load the whole piece, drywall and all, into the kiln while it is still leatherhard. This way if anything is to break during the move or loading it is still fixable. I let the piece dry out for a few days with the kiln off and then do a slow firing, about 3-4 days depending on how dry the piece is.
Oh no! When this piece came out of the kiln parts of the head had blown off! This can happen for any number of reasons, but in this case I think the clay on top was wetter than the clay underneath, or there were air pockets between the layers of clay. Lack of compression of the clay when solid building or differences in the dryness of the clay can cause little blow outs like this one. They are easily fixed! I used 5 min. epoxy to glue the larger pieces with the ears back on, but the rest of the pieces were too small to glue.
For filling large areas of a blow out or cracks in sculpture I use East Valley Epoxy, which can be purchased from the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana. This excellent epoxy paste works and looks just like clay! It also drys just as hard as fired clay. It can be smoothed with water and worked in the hands like clay. Sculpting tools can be used on it to perfectly match any texture, and it can be sanded smooth when dry. East Valley Epoxy can also be colored with ceramic pigments, or painted to match any glaze surface. There are also cheaper alternatives that can work for filling large spaces, plumbers putty, bondo, pc-7 and pc-11 are all great materials that are sold at any hardware store. They all have different solvents and durability depending on what they are needed for.
For the surface of this piece I used flat interior house paint. I loved working with this cold finish and not having to worry about how glazes might turn out. The finished piece here also has the leather strap and twine attached.
This piece was inspired by the dancing sloth bears in India. The leather strap and twine is a common harness for these seemingly dangerous animals. Similarly, the giant sloth with its long claws seems more than an match for such a feeble attempt to control it.
In Greek mythology, Chronos is the personification of time. I felt that the giant sloth was like this as well. He seems an ancient giant, strange and unknown, from a time when all nature was untamed and unrestricted.
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