In this blog I describe what I’m currently working on, why it interests me and the issues the work presents. I’ll also discuss the motivation for earlier works and generally muse on life and art from a painter & sculptor’s perspective.
The project I am working on at the time of writing is called “The Singer”.
I have created a plaster maquette (model) of the piece
I am currently re-creating the model at a scale of 1:4.5 & have begun by carving a polystyrene armature out of a large chunk of polystyrene dumped in an industrial area. Here is an image of beginning to draw the figure on the polystyrene.
This armature provides support for modeling the detailed surface of the piece in either concrete or plaster, depending on where I can find a home for the finished artwork. If the final work is to be hand-built the final surface will be concrete. If the final work is to be cast, the the final surface will be plaster.
This is a departure for me as a sculptor because for the past few years I have been driven by commissions or creating work for particular exhibitions in the hope of selling it. The current piece is one that I am making because it takes me in the direction I want to go, which is not always the case with commissions.
Transposing the measurements from a 20″ high maquette to 90″ high is challenging especially since my piece of found polystyrene is an odd shape and not all parts of the figure fit into it. So I have to remove chunks then glue them back on for stump roots, tail feathers etc. The armature is not a thing of beauty.
First I roughly cut the front & back profiles and now I’m working on the sides.
To carve the polystyrene I am using a hot wire made by my partner Colin. I found information on making a hot-wire polystyrene cutter on the internet using a model train transformer as the heat source. As a first attempt it was fairly successful but kept shorting out then the transformer overheated & died. This time we used another design we found on the net using a 9 volt power supply, but it wasn’t hot enough. So we substituted a 12 volt transformer and a heavier gauge wire than most hot-wire designs recommend because I am cutting very dense polystyrene.
Using a hot wire to cut polystyrene is much neater than sawing it as it comes off in tidy chunks rather than a studio full of white flakes. But the fumes are toxic so I cut with doors open and a fan going.
Ideas I’m Working With
The sculpture is a realistic depiction of a half-bird/half/human figure with its head thrown back singing. The Singer celebrates the human instinct to make music and to create art. Biologists usually explains the singing of birds as a way of defining territory but it is difficult not to interpret bird-song as springing from the same impulse as human-song and The Singer is transported by the uplifting power of singing.
The work considers how we are different and how we are the same as birds but it suggests that the similarities are greater than the differences.It refers to the myths of every culture in which birds & humans transform into each other. It is part of a series of sculptures using as a theme archetypal images of part human/part animal figures that I have been creating for some time. These figures are characteristic of myths in every culture in the world and create a recognizable common thread among cultural traditions. Human/animal myths originated at a time when humans were more highly attuned to other species and all cultures include stories about animals that take on human characteristics to pierce the human/animal divide. My sculptures attempt to reconnect with and communicate the wisdom of ancestors who understood the inter-relatedness and inter-dependence of all forms of life and that sustainability involves protecting the ecosystems on which we all depend. This sculpture explores inter-connections between humans and bird species. Previous civilizations understood that birds & humans are interdependent, and if we destroy bird habitat, we destroy ourselves. The sculpture was inspired by a small, four-thousand year-old terracotta piece I saw in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Ancient Human/Bird Myths
I am interested in the human/animal fusion images in that they stem from an earlier period of human development when people regarded the natural world as benign. The earth and its many & diverse forms of life were seen as a benevolent as long as they stayed in tune with its forces. In earlier religions the animal or animal-headed gods/goddesses are symbolic expressions of a deep spiritual understanding. For instance, when an animal was depicted in Ancient Egypt, it represented a particular function/attribute in its purest form. When an animal-headed figure is depicted, it conveys that particular function/attribute in the human being.
In addition to understanding the inherent connection and identification with other forms of life, earlier forms of religion recognized the importance of a balance between male & female energies.
J. J. Bachofen (1861) postulated that the historical patriarchates were a comparatively recent development, having replaced an earlier state of primeval matriarchy, and postulated a matriarchal society and chthonic mystery cults as the second of four stages of the historical development of religion. The first stage he characterized as a paleolithic hunter-and-gatherer society practicing a polyamorous and communistic lifestyle. The second stage is a matriarchal “lunar” stage of agriculture with an early form of Demeter the dominant deity. This was followed by a stage of emerging patriarchy, finally succeeded by the stage of patriarchy and the appearance of civilization in classical antiquity. In the later Abrahamic monotheistic religions, God is the Father, dominant, powerful, fatherly & masculine. This theory has its adherents and detractors, but it is a compelling and useful idea to explain the imbalances & conflicts between natural/human and male/female in current societies.
Many believe the anthropocentrism of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions is the underlying reason why humanity dominates and sees the need to “develop” most of the Earth for human habitat at the expense of all other species. The Book of Genesis states, “ And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” This belief that human beings have special status in nature based on unique capacities provides the rationale for unlimited human expansion and resource use on a finite planet. That is why I am interested in looking at earlier concepts of the relationship between humans and the natural world to understand how, as artists, we can re-brand the human species in a more earth-friendly format.
This is an area I’ve been exploring for over 25 years. Here is one of my drawings called “Flying Dreams” from 2003.
Below are some of the ancient animal or human/animal fusion gods & goddesses that use the bird as a symbol for a particular human function or attribute.
Birds & the Divine
In Egyptian mythology, Nekhbet was an early local goddess who became the patron of Upper Egypt and one of the two patron deities for all of Ancient Egypt. She was seen as a goddess who had chosen to adopt the city, and consequently depicted as the Egyptian white vulture, a creature that the Egyptians thought only existed as females (not knowing that the males are identical). They were presumed to be reproducing via parthenogenesis.
In art, Nekhbet was depicted as the white vulture (representing purification), always seen on the front of pharaoh’s double crown. Nekhbet usually was depicted hovering, with her wings spread above the royal image, clutching a shen symbol (representing infinity, all, or everything), frequently in both of her claws. As patron of the pharaoh, she was sometimes seen to be the mother of the divine aspect of the pharaoh, and it was in this capacity that she was Mother of Mothers.
In some late texts of the Book of the Dead, Nekhbet is referred to as Father of Fathers, Mother of Mothers, who hath existed from the Beginning, and is Creatrix of this World.
Another example is the Ba that is represented as a human-headed bird, which is the opposite of the normal depiction of gods/goddesses as human bodies with animal heads-in other words, as the divine aspect of the terrestrial. The Ba is depicted as a stork. The stork is known for its migrating and homing instinct, and is also known worldwide as the bird who carries newborn babies to their new families. The stork returns to its own nest with consistent precision-hence a migratory bird is the perfect choice to represent the soul.
Another early reference to the stork is in the Bible. In Leviticus (11:19) and Deuteronomy (14:18) the bird is listed along with other birds that should not be eaten. Both of these Old Testament books were written between 1450-1410 B.C., and these early references categorize this bird as such a sacred bird that it should not be killed. In Zechariah’s book, he wrote, “Then lifted I up my eyes, and looked and, behold, there came out two woman, and the wind was in their wings; for they had wings like the wings of a stork…” (Zech 5:9).
The Bestiaries , written in the 8th and 9th centuries, also touched on the stork. Pliny, Aristotle, Indian, Hebrew, and Egyptian animal myths all contributed to this book’s insights. These birds are best known for having a strong responsibility to their young, and pull out their own feathers in order to keep them warm. This self-sacrifice shows the mothers put their children’s needs above their own comfort. This book also says, “their enemies are snakes”. Serpents are obviously associated with evilness and corruption and the large beaks of storks often kill these “evil thoughts or evil brothers”. Some of the reasoning behind the stork’s high status is connected to the fact that its main enemy represents wickedness. Also since the stork migrated to Asia, which “signifies heavenly things”, people traveling to Asia were thought to “aim for higher things”, just like the stork. century, which is when the Bestiaries were written, the stork had a very optimistic denotation.
The Chinese were also referred to the stork in their ancient folklore. They believed the stork had the ability to bring people up to the heavens. In their ancient legends they believed, “A young flute-player and wandering minstrel who carries a basket laden with fruit. His soul-searching songs caused a stork to snatch him away to the heavens”. In this instance the stork has the power to bring this man to heaven for his enjoyable songs. The Chinese depiction of the stork went along with other views and proclaimed the bird as a messenger of God.
I’ve been drawn to stork-like images, without knowing of their spiritual significance for decades. I would have used a stork for “The Singer” except that I was worried that a long beak in the air on a sculpture would be too delicate & get damaged.
Opposite is a linocut print on paper called the Three Graces that was done over 25 years ago. About the same time I did the oil on canvas painting below, also called the Three Graces. These were interpretations of the famous oil painting by Italian painter Raphael who in turn was inspired by a ruined Roman marble statue in Siena.
I was interested in using this celebrated image of female grace & beauty and applying it to another species. The work questions the primacy placed on human beauty and invites an appreciation of grace & beauty in other species. The melding of human & bird again suggests our interdependence.
More recently, I have explored the stork or crane image in a painting called “StorkWoman Waits”. This is a painting that I have been working on since 1995 when it began as a study of the human figure in a life-painting session at Basic Inquiry Studio at Main & Georgia in Vancouver. I love to draw & paint but have little storage room, so instead of perpetually producing new paintings, I continually re-paint canvases to incorporate whatever ideas I am currently working with.
On the left is the painting as it began in 1995 – a terrible painting by any standard. I took the figure from the studio setting & set her on a beach to practice landscapes. But I found it difficult if not impossible to work with the human female figure without feeling that it was somehow Kitchy. The human female has been done to death in drawings, paintings, photos, sculptures& films such that in the 21st Century any depiction is stereotypical. So I began to experiment with my favourite theme, the human/animal figure.
At first I just substituted a stork’s head for the woman’s, (this iteration was not documented) but then I decided to further play with the image by making it into a sculpture study. So I imagined how it would look if I were to create it as a sculpture in concrete and install it on a beach. The sculpture would be entirely composed of flat planes so that it could either be fabricated out of welded steel or hand-built in concrete. I was also experimenting with a more restricted palette – using only Alizarin Crimson, Viridian Green & white.
I wasn’t happy with the semi-naturalistic landscape setting and wondered if I could make the whole painting into a sculpture study. In other words, apply the restricted palette and planar surfaces to the entire canvas. The idea was to create a world carved in stone – as though the scenario was sculpted out of the side of a mountain.It is still a work in progress and will undoubtably be re-worked some more in the future when I get back to painting.
At this stage I am more interested in the characteristics that previous civilizations have attributed to animals used in myths, so this painting that was originally called simply StorkWoman Waits, is now called Nekhbet. The names of paintings tend to evolve with my understanding of what they are trying to say.
If the study were to be fabricated in 3D it would ideally be much larger than life – about 3 m high. It would be fabulous in stainless steel, but more likely to be realizable in concrete. It would be an interesting experiment to use integral pigments to attain similar colour values to those in the study.
In Greek mythology, a harpy (“snatcher”) was one of the winged spirits best known for constantly stealing all food from Phineas. Hesiod calls them two “lovely-haired” creatures, and pottery art depicting the harpies featured beautiful women with wings. Harpies as ugly winged bird-women are a late development, due to a confusion with the Sirens. Roman and Byzantine writers detailed their ugliness. This transition of animal/human mythical creatures from beautiful and benign to wicked and ugly over time is a common theme that emerges in an investigation of animal-human figures.
In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman Daedalus. The main story told about Icarus is his attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall to his death. The myth is usually taken as examples of hubris or failed ambition — and is often depicted in art such as The Lament For Icarus by Herbert James Draper.
The universal human longing to fly finds expression in images of angels or humans with bird wings, that have appeared in images of every society throughout history. Creativity is a flight of the imagination, where ideas coming from a quiet place within are given wings. In the beginning, humans built steel flying machines out of the desire to fly like a bird, but in the last hundred years, flying machines have become killing machines that drop death from the air.
I have been exploring the more masculine myths around flying through a series of works called Flying Man. He is a half bird, half human figure in flight suspended atop a tall steel pole. He first appeared in the drawings below.
This is about self-propulsion and the freedom inherent in leaving the internal combustion engine behind. We are not meant to be always weighted down by tons of motorized steel, rubber and plastic.
The Flying Man theme relates to the human desire to move unhindered through space like a bird.It relates to our own inevitable transformation to the non-human plane and asks if it is worthwhile to be earthbound by worldly concerns and neglect one’s spiritual development.
Again, on a personal level, Flying Man is a self-portrait. In my younger days, I frequently experienced flying dreams in which, if I just put myself in the right frame of mind and concentrated fully, I enjoyed exhilarating flights at dizzying heights. With the advent of kids, mortgage etc., the dreams stopped. Flying Man asks if it is worthwhile to be earthbound by embracing weighty responsibilities and neglecting one’s astral self. Up, up and away!
Next Flying Man appeared as a small maquette for a larger work in steel & copper.
This figure would have a stainless steel torso, arms and legs with copper bird’s wings and tail. The copper would be allowed to develop verdigris so that the feathered areas turn watery blue-green over time. The bird/human figure would be cut from sheet metal and assembled along the lines of balsa wood glider construction. The sculpture should be roughly 12′ long, 3′ high and 10′ wide. The wings would be built up in two layers from sections of feathers cut from copper sheet. The tail would also be constructed from copper. The completed stainless steel and copper figure would be bolted into a steel pole.
Variations on this idea include a concept for a flock of flying figures supported on a tree-like structure for which I have no drawings of maquettes. Called Flying Folks, the idea entails many flying half-human/half bird figures in a variety of attitudes and with varying combinations of bird/human attributes. The figures would be assembled along the lines of balsa wood gliders with arms, legs wings and tails slotted into the main body at right angles similar to the flying figure maquette shown above. There might be 40-50 of these figures each roughly 24” long, 8” high and 20” wide. The figures would have polished stainless steel torsos, arms and legs and copper bird’s wings and tails tooled to create a quilled effect. The copper would be allowed to verdigris so that the feathered areas turn watery blue-green over time.
The flying figures would be suspended from numerous stainless steel rods about 8’ long and 1” in diameter attached to a centre steel pole about 4” in diameter and about 15’ high. The rods would branch out in all directions from the centre pole starting at a height of about 10’ or well out of reach of all access points. The piece would be about 20’ high and 15’ in diameter. The flying figures could be mechanized so that they turn and/or tilt simultaneously or in a choreographed sequence. As they moved, they would catch and reflect the light like a flock of birds. The steel pole would be welded onto a thick steel base bolted into a concrete foundation finished to sidewalk level. Another possibility is for the flock of Flying Folk to be suspended in a cloud-like formation from overhead supports.
The other configuration I came up with for the Flying Man was to make him interactive and kinetic using a bicycle as in the following drawing.
I feel that a human empowered sculpture, driven by a bicycle, gives a strong message about sustainable travel and is a celebration of the bicycle as the most efficient, non-polluting machine ever invented for transportation. The connection between the bicycle and the flying figure also evokes the freedom and fun of riding a bike that builds strength and a sense of self-reliance for the rider. The kinetic elements in Flights of Fancy are the two wings of the flying figure suspended on a pole that are driven up and down in a flying motion by the bicycle mounted at the base of the pole. A person pedaling the bike turns a sprocket which in turn moves the chain loop upward to the flying figure whose wings are moved up & down by a crankshaft attached to an upper sprocket. The sculpture would invite and require interaction and engagement with the public to be activated.
The sculpture would be about 3’ h x 9.75’ w x 9.5’ d. The body, arms & legs of the flying figure would be cut from sheet steel. The wing and tail “feathers” would be aluminum and pop riveted onto steel struts that act as the skeleton of the wings. The steel pole acts as an enclosure for the chain loop. There would definitely be some details to fine-tune if this were ever to become a reality, but I think it would make a wonderful piece.