Sculpting from Life

As an art teacher, my goal is to contribute to my community and improve my skills as a life-long learner. The foundation of my teaching is built in refining my work as an artist and seeking professional development. This summer has been an opportunity for me to hone my craft and explore new techniques such as the Figurative Clay Sculpture workshop at the Adrian Center of the Arts sponsored by the Michigan Art Education Association. This was my first visit to Adrian, Michigan and I enjoyed walking around the ACA campus where resident artists study ceramics, glass, fibers, jewelry, painting, drawing, photography and woodworking.

In a few hours each morning over the span of three days, I learned how to sculpt a full figure in clay from a living person. Instructed by the artist, Amy Philp, known for her representational figures, she demonstrated how to mold a three-dimensional form from a solid block of clay, carve away details to represent the model, and then hollow out the inside for a continuous path of air to escape during the firing process.

While I studied life drawing in college, this was my first time sculpting from a live model. Looking back on this workshop, it is amazing how my sculpture evolved from a six-pound block of clay. The first steps involved slapping and squeezing the block with my hands into a standing figure and then measuring the size of the model’s head to her body to begin forming my sculpture in correct proportions. I counted to myself approximately 7 ½  “heads” in her stature from head to toe and then formed a figure that was 7 ½ heads tall. I spent equal amounts of time looking at the model and my sculpture on the first day pushing the clay with my fingers into the general body movement, making sure that the main areas were in alignment and proportion with each other.

When I was satisfied with my figure’s proportions, I began the process of drawing into the clay and then carving away from all sides to reveal the three-dimensional form in the solid figure. This was an interesting brain exercise for me to observe the model and then translate the depth and detail that I perceived into my sculpture. I got lost in the moment and loved the sculpting process creating “something out of nothing!”

On the final day of the workshop, I zeroed in on my work with a laser focus carving out fine details with small wooden tools in my figure’s face, hands, the folds in her skirt, and the texture of her apron to capture the essence of my subject. Our instructor let us know that it would take our sculptures a couple months to slowly dry out under plastic to prevent uneven moisture during the drying process that could lead to explosions in the kiln. 

Since I had a long return drive, Amy thought it best that I hollow out my sculpture at home so that it could be stronger for transportation. The following day, I set up a studio space to slice my figure into sections and carefully carve out the interior. Each body part has to have a hollow path of continuous space for the air to escape. This was a nerve wracking but necessary step to completing my work. Once the sculpture was hollow, I had to slip and score each section back together and smooth the seams so that it could look like it had never been taken apart to begin with.

Over the next several weeks, the piece will continue to slowly dry until all the moisture fades away before I can fire my sculpture in the kiln. As it dries, I will be monitoring any cracks that develop to smooth together. I can also take advantage of the leather hard stage to chip away finer texture details for a crisp finish. Quality work takes time. 

I loved being a part of this workshop and learning a new sculpture technique. While I’ve built sculptures with the pinch and coil methods, this was the first time that I had to think like Michelangelo and visualize the negative spaces by subtracting the forms from a solid block. It was a fascinating process! I am grateful to the MAEA and Adrian Center of the Arts for offering this opportunity to art teachers and allowing us to earn SCECH credit hours toward license renewal. 

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