#3: More on Birds

Birds as Symbols

In a previous post I described some of the work I have been doing in exploring bird/human imagery.  This post continues on this theme and also illustrates the process in which an idea takes shape. This idea is for the next sculpture I will be working on after finishing the current piece shown in that earlier posting (bear with me, I have just discovered hyperlinks). Below is the clay maquette of The Singer that I used as a model for  the plaster maquette of The Singer. But before getting into the technical stuff about howthe idea was developed, I would like to get back into the theoretical stuff behind the idea.

clay maquette for The Singer
front view
clay maquette for The Singer
rear view
In previous posts, I talked about my interest in the use of animal symbolism in ancient myths, legends and spirituality. One of the more compelling perspectives on this is the ancient Egyptian Cosmic Religion. The website of the Egyptian Mystical University (EMU), www.egypt-tehuti.org, is a fascinating source of information about  Egyptian mysticism.

The EMU agrees with most religions throughout the world, that the human being is made in the image of God, i.e. a miniature universe; and that to understand the universe is to understand oneself, and vice versa. The Ancient Egyptians. understood  that man was made in the image of God, and as such, man represented the image of all creation. This is an interesting revelation as it helps me to understand how the idea that man was made in the image of God has been misinterpreted.

In an earlier post I suggested that the anthropocentrism of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions has provided a rational for human domination of the planet at the expense of all other species. The statement in the Book of Genesis, “ 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.” has been interpreted to mean that  human beings have special status in nature based on unique capacities and that therefore God has somehow ordained unlimited human expansion and resource use on a finite planet.

However, this glimpse into Egyptian mysticism helps to clarify the original idea of man as made in the image of God. The idea was not that man was god-like or more like god than other species, but only that if a person can fully understand themselves, they can understand the universe. The EMU goes on to explain that the reason a human image was used as the image of God is because the only way to explain anything to human beings is on human terms and in human form. And just as human beings can represent divinity, other species could be used as well.  In order to represent divine powers/attributes/functions/forces/energies.

Egyptians identified certain animals with specific qualities that could symbolize certain divine functions and principles. These animals were chosen as symbols for that particular aspect of divinity so animal or animal-headed  gods & goddesses are symbolic expressions of a deep spiritual understanding. When a total animal is depicted in Ancient Egypt, it represents 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.

I find it encouraging to confirm that humans have in the past understood the commonality and interdependency between humans & other species, and that the current human disregard for the natural world is not an ingrained human attribute but a recent development in human hubris.  I am convinced that the anthropomorphism of the Abrahamic religions is at the heart of the crisis facing the planet as human habitat and human aquisitiveness wreak havoc on the natural world.  It is my personal Theory of Everything.

This is why I continue to explore the animal/human fusion images and why these images have interested (not to say obsessed) me for 25 years.  It is such a simple but powerful idea: that all we carbon-based life-forms subsisting on the thin skin of earth on this 3rd rock from the Sun are all in this together and if we mess things up for the other life-forms, we mess it up for ourselves.  Somehow the birds represent the most vulnerable of the life-forms and also the most beautiful.  Their demise through human hubris is most clearly morally insupportable (though why the demise of any insect species should be any less insupportable is unsupportable).

So I continue to work with bird/human images and have been working with ideas for communicating these images in steel.  Translating a realistic figure into steel is effective because it demands that the figure be simplified, stylized & abstracted.


The trouble with realistic images of people, birds, big-eyed puppies etc., is that they tend to be sentimental, stereotypical and schmaltzy.

But translating an image from realistic clay to hard steel circumvents these pitfalls.  I began by printing out a photo of the clay maquette, and traced it on a light table to make a line drawing. Then I imagined how to make the image out of steel and drew that.  Here is the line drawing:

The Singer, original drawing from clay maquette
“The Singer”, front view, original drawing from clay maquette

Instead of trying to make the image as realistic as possible, the intention was to make the fabrication as much fun and as little work as possible.  Anyone who has worked with steel knows how much work it is to fabricate a volumetric component such as a cube with all those seams to be welded and ground.  So instead, I created a design that would use manufactured components like pipes and rods.

The Singer would be constructed using .3 cm thick mild steel for all components. Fabrication will begin with an armature about 155 cm high made up of two intersecting planes welded at the centre.  The perimeter of these planes will create the form of the figure seen from the front & side. This armature will be welded onto a plinth comprising one large & one small capped steel pipes welded together. The plinth will be about 75 cm high x 90 cm in diameter.

Encasing the armature will be a series of bands made from 4.5 cm x .3 cm flat stock .  These are welded to the armature.

Arms & legs will be created from steel tubing using fittings at elbows & knees.  The knees will also serve as  reducers to accommodate larger thigh & smaller shin. Hands & feet will be made from rectangular steel tubing and fingers & toes will be made from steel rods about 2-3 cm in diameter.

:The Singer, rear view, original drawing from clay maquette

The feathers will be plasma cut from sheet steel and welded onto the encircling bands.  The feathers will be welded to the plinth & body from the bottom up so that they overlap & the welds are hidden.  The beak will be made from steel tubing with a flat inner facing and the eyes made from either found hardware or plasma cut.

I am excited about using manufactured components as they create an interesting abstraction of the form & add a “ready-made” aspect to the work.

Once I had the outline of how I would approach transforming this very sensuous bird-person into metal, I honed my elementary Photoshop skills on trying to make it look like 3D steel.

So here is the same image with Photoshop/Window/Tools/Gradient Tool/Gradient Picker/Black&White/Edit/More/Metals/Steel Bar.

The Singer, Photoshopped study for sculpture in steel
“The Singer”, front view, Photoshopped study for sculpture in steel

Photoshopping is such fun but can turn into an obsession ie trying to get those gradients just so. And it can devour hours of time, especially for me because I forget how to do things if I’m away from it for a while.  Or the program will do buggy things that take me hours to figure out.  For instance, the original line drawing above had been somehow changed into a bitmap. I had actually constructed the drawing in GIMP then brought it into Photoshop. I should have been alerted when I went to re-size and the resolution was 1200 pixels/inch. So when I tried to save it it couldn’t be saved for the web as a jpg. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out why it was stuck until I stumbled into Mode/Bitmap.

The Singer, Photoshopped study for sculpture in steel
“The Singer”, rear view, Photoshopped study for sculpture in steel

For a while I used GIMP as my drawing program because I thought you had to pay a fortune for Photoshop.

I just love things like GIMP that people put out there for free.  But it kept crashing on me & I had a huge sign on my comp “save every 5 minutes!!!”

Then I found out you can buy Photoshop Elements for way less, which is a fact that is not easy to find out on the Adobe site. Now I use a combination of the 2 programs because some aspects of GIMP are better than Photoshop.


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