By Christopher B. Wagner
Over the past month the focus of my studio work has revolved around the process of making molds for four of the finished clay portraits. Paul had been in India working with his father to install a pipe organ, giving us a break from our continuous model schedule, a break I needed to catch up on producing finished pieces. This time has allowed me to reorient myself in my own studio, which has been somewhat neglected over the course of our Veteran portrait project and given me time to reflect. All the hours of modeling and conversation had blended in my mind, so taking the time to digest the experience while finishing work has been cathartic.
My mind wanders to the jungles of Vietnam while breaking apart the body of our model Ron whom I had to be cut into four pieces in order to cast it; a separate mold for each of his arms, one for his right leg, and a large mold for his torso. I spend somewhere in the proximity of 20 to 30 extra hours of work beyond the modeling phase to produce a final representation of him. He is cast with a polyurethane skin, which captures all the detail of the original clay, every tool mark and the occasional fingerprint and then filled with concrete to anchor him. I line up the seams of his arms and leg, drill holes and insert threaded steel rods to hold him together. I haven’t weighed him yet but a half-sized portrayal of a human being filled with concrete is heavy. Several layers of acrylic paint simplify the complexity of his actual tattoos, but I feel just enough is captured to give the sense of them. Over the top of the paint I apply a thin wash of black, which brings out the details of his carved tattoos and wrinkles. Finally a dry brushing of white creates highlights and serves to unify the overall composition.
I perform a similar set of steps with varying levels of complexity for each of the veteran portraits. Several can be cast in one solid piece, which sounds like it should be less work, and it is less work on the back end—but in the beginning, where I am now, a sculptor has to make a very complicated and time consuming mold to make a solid casting possible. Our World War II veteran Bill, for example, is cast in one solid piece. His upright seated posture, which might be the simplest pose for any of our veterans, makes this possible. The mold for him only required two pieces of rubber, but a seven-piece mother mold. A mother mold serves as an exoskeleton to the flexible rubber. The rubber needs a stable form in order to hold its shape, and since the mother mold is necessarily inflexible, I need many pieces so that I can break it apart once the mold is filled with a rigid material. Part of the trick in casting a sculpture in one piece (and a trade off in time) is layering. Where with Ron, which is broken into several simpler molds, I could cast an arm in one pouring of polyurethane, with Bill I have to pour many small, thin layers to coat all the surfaces in the mold, and each layer has to dry between pourings.
The complicated process that goes into creating a cast sculpture is an arduous series creative and destructive steps. In the end a sculptor has to trust his skill, roll the dice, and hopefully a sculpture will result. I could make several comparisons between this process and our veterans but I will leave that to your consideration. I will say, however, there is nothing quite like the feeling I get at the end of a casting when I’m breaking apart a mold with a rock in my gut, hoping that a usable piece is inside, and I peel back the inner layer to find a well formed face staring back.