This project started in response to the now all-too-common sight of a dead whale washed up to shore with a belly full of plastic. As one of many who have been horrified by this sight, I decided to try to eliminate plastic from my life as well as save and make art out of that plastic which I could not avoid buying. After only a few days of collecting my refuse and carefully washing, drying and storing it, it became clear that this useless rubbish, when multiplied by millions of earth’s inhabitants, added up to a staggering amount of non-earth-friendly material. From the wrapping covering the cans of dog food I ordered online, to the maddeningly difficult-to-open containers for hardware items, to the pervasive use of plastic wrap for foods in the grocery store, it seemed impossible to avoid this ubiquitous material. Thanks to many online resources by like-minded individuals, I slowly found new ways of living without plastic. Eliminating coffee pods in favor of coffee poured through a stainless steel cone, sewing muslin bags to use at the grocery store, buying glass containers to store food in, and returning to using bar soap are some strategies we can all embrace. I am not perfect and still struggle to find new ways to change my old habits.
Objects that are not like everyday things, because they are associated with death, threaten order and our sense that we control our environment. Remains, such as hair and bone, are potent reminders of the frailty of life. Yet, in the 19th century, mourners sought closeness with the deceased by weaving their hair into jewelry and wreaths. Bringing both the sadness of a constant reminder of loss and the comfort of the memento, many hoped the presence of these relics of the human body would eventually overcome the pain of separation. As we reevaluate our position of dominance over the nonhuman world on cultural, political and personal levels, we examine our relationship with animal death.
Animals have been our partners for thousands of years. Many cultures have revered them in life and mourned them in death, as well as memorialized them through mummification, ritual burial, and the construction of monuments. Ancient Egyptians mourned and embalmed their cats and buried them in special cemeteries along with food for the afterlife. Members of cultures who relied on hunting for their survival honored their prey with rituals before the hunt and, after, with burials and monuments. For Hindus and Buddhists both animals and humans have a soul and an afterlife and are mourned equally. The Jindaiji Pet Cemetery in Japan provides shelves for grievers to place remembrances of their deceased pets. In the US, the earliest pet cemetery is Hartsdale in New York established in 1896, where over 80,000 pets are been lovingly buried and commemorated.
But what of the deaths of countless unnamed animals. Much is written about the lack of shared mourning practices in contemporary culture. What can be lost is a way of connecting the past with a more enlightened and hopeful future. For biologist Donna Haraway “killing sentient animals is killing someone, not something; knowing this is not the end but the beginning of serious accountability into worldly complexities” (p. 106, When Species Meet). If we acknowledge some of the harsher realities of our relationships with animal death, we can find ways to minimalize the negative impact we have on nonhuman life. Honoring and mourning creatures can be part of moving forward.
In 1887, Eadweard Muybridge, better known for his images of racehorses running at full speed, completed his series of Dread, an English mastiff, engaged in a typical lumbering run. By setting up cameras at regular intervals, he was able to capture the dog’s even gait. Dread Running: A Memorial to Lost Dogs is comprised of 48 reliefs using Muybridge’s eight images as an inspiration for the implied movement. Each piece is made from the remains of shelter animals. The ashes and bones–retrieved from the waste bin–have been mixed with a clear glaze and fired in a kiln to fix the shape. Like Victorian hair wreaths, the individual pieces are relics of lost lives. When combined they form a memorial to honor these animals—some old, some newly born, some unwanted and some lost but once loved ferociously.
Completed in 2015, Torture is Wrong presents the viewer with a “universal truth,” assumed to be believed by everyone who lives in a free and democratic society. After the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib in the early 2000s, many Americans were confronted with an ugly truth. Some leaders and citizens had abandoned (and continue to abandon) a higher morality. The piece is made in the Victorian/Edwardian style of women’s needlework. Historical evidence exists of political statements made in this form in the embroideries of Janie Terrero and others who were imprisoned in Britain in 1912 for their acts as suffragettes. We are fortunate that we can speak out without suffering the indignities and cruelties meted out to those of our sisters who fought for our right to speak. Today, artists regularly honor women of the past by using embroidery and other fiber arts to make cultural, political and personal statements.
Sprawl consists of three figures gazing off in the distance, as if dreaming. A heavy I-beam—which references the infrastructure–hovers over each, indicating possible danger. Despite the threat they appear to remain hopeful for their futures as they look forward.
The figures where modeled in clay as two-thirds life-sized portraits of three distinct individuals. Started over eight years ago when the three studied art at Mott, these representations mark a transition for each. They have since gone on to their adult lives. This piece represents my fears for them as they mature in an environment filled with high unemployment and crime rates.
For several years I have been making small drawings, working in the evening when I’m too tired for more physical work. At first my collection of Mexican folk art provided inspiration for these drawings. Scanning my house for a more natural subject matter, I settled on the dead bugs I found in windowsills and on my screened porch. I draw from life using a variety of magnifying glasses and build up layers of very vigorous marks until the forms emerges.
When some friends asked me to make a piece for a long thin alcove in their living room, I immediately thought of a portrait piece in the style of Giacometti. After realizing that the thin limbs would not work in fired clay, and knowing that bronze would be too expensive, I decided to fabricate the piece in steel. Giacometti made his work in clay or plaster and his brother Diego made the molds and handled the casting. Not having the luxury of having a relative willing to make the molds and knowing the time and expense involved led me further to th idea of working in steel. I started with 3/8 inch steel rods and filled with more steel, at times using 1/4 rods as filler. Halfway through the process, I changed the pose. Originally the figures touched and did not interact with the wall. I spent a year off and on working at it. In the end, I wanted the faces to be suggestive of the features of the soon to be owners of the work. By patiently melting steel, the forms became more three dimensional and the features became more distinct.
When I began to model three figures many years ago I didn’t know exactly where the activity would lead me. The word “sprawl” related to two separate meanings. I had just moved into an older home outside of Flint and became more aware of urban sprawl. Former farm fields transformed into condos and single family homes within months. Some of these now sit vacant since the downturn in the economy. The second concept related to the word “sprawl” had to do with the high murder rate in Flint. This statistic seemed to haunt Flint and still does eight years later. So this single word determined the pose that the models would take. I asked each to dress in their favorite clothing so that they contributed something to the overall effect.
The piece was always about the vulnerability of the young people who grew up in this city and the surrounds. Once a stable environment with exemplary primary and secondary schools, the rapid loss of manufacturing jobs has lead to instability in so many lives. Another version of these portraits in terracotta, with I-beams looming over the people, addresses the roll of institutions in holding them back.
For a long time I thought about what the figures would be cast in. I had been thinking of birdseed for some time as a symbol of compassion. When I began researching I found that seed could be held together with gelatin, peanut butter or suet. I settled on gelatin because it wouldn’t alter the color of the feed. I decided to use dried corn instead of seed because it would attract mammals as well as birds.
Several weeks ago we completed the casting of the three figures in corn and gelatin to place on the ground in my front yard. The images of the deer and people interacting with the pieces came from a wildlife camera placed on a tree nearby. Much like I discovered when I drew the porch bugs, the presence of the deer remind me that a whole other world of which I’m unaware exists around my home.
I would like the viewers of this piece to see the vulnerability of these young people. Over the course of several months, they will disappear as deer and other animals come by at night to feed. But also, I see these young people as giving of themselves, of being themselves the compassionate ones. I have a lot of respect for my students here. They have overcome many hardships to come to college and they are very resilient.
- Shelby Writing a Check
- Half Lifesize
- Glazed Stoneware
The concept for Shelby Writing a Check came from a discussion in sculpture class about poses that challenge stereotypes. One of the students suggested the idea of a woman writing a check. I jumped on the idea and worked alongside students that semester to create this piece.
- Roger Cooking
- Half Lifesize
- Glazed Stoneware
I asked Roger to come up with a pose that challenged gender stereotypes in a figure drawing class I taught one semester. Since he often cooks for his family, he found a wok and spoon in the shelves of still life objects we kept on hand and posed holding them. A few semesters later he took the same pose in a sculpture class. I joined the students in making a clay sculpture.
- Paul Bowing his Head
- Half Lifesize
- Glazed Stoneware
- 1-1/2 times Lifesize
- Glazed Stoneware
A collaboration with my sculpture students at Mott Community College
For centuries the artist has used the grid to aid in replicating scenes for their paintings. Alberti and Durer looked through a transparent grid to draw more accurately. Post-minimalist artists of the last half of the twentieth century like Sol Lewitt and Eva Hesse made the grid the subject of their work. Today many artists are interested in digital animation. 3-D programs like Alias Maya use the grid to describe complex forms. The same process that was used by sculptors hundreds of years ago to “point up” a plaster sculpture to create an accurate copy in marble is used today by computer programs to enlarge prototypes and to create animated figures.
We used toothpicks with flags made out of masking tape to mark the points on our model before we made the larger bear. Each point is a certain distance from the front or back of the stand and a certain distance from the side of the stand and a certain height. These three points tell us where that point is in space. When we multiply each one of those numbers by a factor (for instance, we may want the final piece to be 4 times as large as the model and then we would multiply by 4), we can find that point in space for the large bear. This pointing system helped us to make the large bear.
The texture evolved out of a need to figure out the proportions of the body parts to each other, to create forms that were consistent and symmetrical and to develop an idea of direction of the flowing hair. In much the same way an animator invents a form using 3-D programs like Alias, we created a bear in a pose without the benefit of having a real bear to look at.
We discovered that the grid looked contemporary because it references the digital age and the strong connection the arts can have with technology. The grid texture is also original and in that sense it is creative and it challenges our preconceived notions of what a bear sculpture should look like.
The grid mirrors what we try to do in an educational setting. It creates an order and therefore a way of understanding. It asks to be looked at in a new way and asks the viewer to be open to what is new and inventive. It is receptive to its environment as the multiple squares seem to move as the viewer moves around the sculpture. The reflected light from the sun will enhance and animate the surface further.