Friday, November 4, 2011

The Journeyman and the Master

About three years ago, when we were living in Italy, I made a clay sculpture of a Madonna and Christ Child. The design of the piece was based on a forgery. I’ve had a long-time fascination with art forgery and counterfeiting and at the time I was reading a book about a sort of renaissance of forgery that happened in Italy in the 1930s. In the book there was a picture of a Madonna carved from wood that was meant to look late Medieval but something in the curve of the Mother’s stance suggested modern sensibility -a hint of Art Nouveau perhaps. I decided to try something similar. I got a couple bricks of plasticine clay and started building...
I started with a terra-cotta sketch

and then moved on to clay

here it is nearing completion

original face of Christ Child


After a few weeks of sculpting I was pleased with the work. Pleased enough that I started thinking about casting a more permanent version. A sculptor friend named Jason Arkles recommended a foundry in Florence where I could have a mold made. And so on a hot late summer day I took my fragile plasticine madonna down the mountain on a three hour trip to Florence in crowded busses, cars and trains. Plasticine never dries, and the hotter it gets the softer it becomes. I still count it as a small miracle that the thing survived.

how I left the statue at the foundry


But it did survive and I had a mold made. Unfortunately I ran out of time and money and never had the final version cast, as I had intended. We returned to the States and the mold, a lump of plaster and silicone, has sat in the corner of my studio ever since.

Until this week, when I finally had the opportunity to call my old friend, master sculptor Reed Armstrong, who agreed to help me cast the statue myself.

I met Mr. Armstrong about ten years ago. At the time he was creating a series of life-sized statues and I helped him with the very messy and labor-intensive process of making molds for those statues. Those days were a lot of fun, even though I always came home with plaster dried into crevices I didn’t even know I had.

And now, years later, Mr. Armstrong lent me his help and expertise in casting my own statue. I won't go into detail, bur we ran into just about every conceivable problem in casting this statue. The mold is far from perfect and, tragically, the Christ Child’s face has suffered quite a bit, losing a lot of detail from clay that seems to have bonded to the silicon (or suffered damage in the original mold making process). But, all in all, having a statue is better that having an empty mold gathering dust in the corner.

the mold lying open

the mold with all its troubles!


the finished piece:


It’s not a masterpiece. And even calling myself a journeyman sculptor is a stretch. But it’s a step. And I’m learning.

4 comments:

Matthew Bowman said...

I immediately thought of Mr. Armstrong.

A wild shot at the "modern stance" bit would be that the center of gravity is too realistic. Medieval artists didn't care about that sort of thing, so a real medieval version of this would probably have the Virgin standing straighter. I prefer this version.

Also, I should probably show this to my brother, who tried clay sculpting a while back.

Ben Hatke said...

Very good, Matt. Yes there were pictures of similar Madonnas that really were medieval and they were much more vertical.

But the fake one was carved from wood, painted, and then cleverly aged SO MUCH that it really looked like it might have really been dug out from the moldy basement of a half destroyed gothic church.

It was a really excellent fake.

Mom said...

So lovely! By the way, I have seen midieval Madonnas who balanced the child on the hip, realistically, but, if memory serves, she and the child always have their faces turned toward the onlooker. I could be mistaken. --Kate Adams

Jason Peck said...

Hi Ben,

Beautiful Work!