Friday, December 31, 2010
BIRTH OF A CALF
This Christmas I was commissioned to create a sculpture! A year or so ago I had told Lorraine King about making a little calf out of FIMO, the hobby polymer clay, and she was looking for a gift for her husband, Raleigh. They raise Angus cattle at the edge of town so part of the reason we had talked about me trying to make little calf sculptures was that I’d asked to measure their calves, which will begin coming in another month. But then I never got around to it -- I have too much fun writing -- and the idea sort of drifted away.
I do keep a “morgue” or archive of photos out of mags for reference. This is a good part of the world for that because often the best photos are in advertisements meant to make calves look good and there are articles discussing how and why they look that way. But there’s nothing quite like having the real animal in your hands. I love the narrow necks of calves and their big ears. I love the way they fold up as they might have been inside their mothers, those long legs in a Z next to bodies and the front legs tucked under. (I’m no good at making them standing up so my animals have to be lying down or standing in grass. That way I don’t have to figure out an armature of wire inside.)
Bob Scriver liked everyone to do whatever he was doing, so when he made a sculpture he thought I should, too, and the materials and advice were close at hand. My favorite thing was taxidermy eyes which I used on a sequence of paper mache puppets: a fox with glass fox eyes, a monster with big flat fish eyes, and so on. The eyes make them come alive even if they’re only a blob. Once I made a glass-eyed kitten lying on its back with its feet in the air, playing with something. It was plastilene, which has an oil/wax base, so it would never have gotten hard, but a tourist lady saw it sitting around and asked to buy it. She was crestfallen that it wasn’t sale-able. Later I decided it looked more dead than playful -- eyes or no eyes -- and wadded it up, threw the eyes back into the eye drawer. Or maybe it was a note in Bob’s voice. He was fine with me making things -- selling it was different.
FIMO, SCULPY, and SUPER-SCULPY are exactly what we used to long for in those days: a substance that was as malleable as plastilene or even water-based clay, but that could be hardened without molds or kilns. These polymer-based clays can be hardened at low temps in a kitchen oven. They are a little bit problematic in two ways: one is that the stuff needs to be prepared by kneading, especially if it’s a little old, and the other is that it’s so expensive that it’s not practical for large objects. The hobby supply places sell it for dolls or jewelry.
There are many magazines and books with advice about how to handle the stuff. Like mold materials of lab-created products, which must be somehow similar, there are many variations: colors, degrees of softness, glow-in-the-dark, “flexy”, metallic, translucent, pearly and so on. One kind will mix with another. I always put a little pearly and translucent in my human figures. I had tried a couple of small busts and left them with Jack Smith at his Mountain Man gallery up the street, (medicineriver.com) but they didn’t sell. Which was okay. They weren’t particularly inspired. I’d really rather write.
Then there was a death among Tim’s boys at Cinematheque in Paris that left us all struggling with emotion. I tried to make a crucified boy but couldn’t bear to put him on a cross. The cat killed a dove at that point (they nest in my tree) so I put its wings on the boy and sent it to Tim.
The calf I’d once started kept looking at me with its black pin-head bead eyes. Even earless it had personality. So I began the Angus calf, making an aluminum foil core and working from photos. The deal I made with Lorraine was that payment would include the first calf that died this spring so I could bring it home and measure it, look at it, photograph it, and -- well, okay -- maybe even commodify it into saleable figures. The problem is that the King’s calves don’t die. Just the same, in order to remember, Lorraine wrote on her kitchen whiteboard: “Mary wants dead calf.” Raleigh was stunned! What on earth? I think he understands by now.
If I get a dead calf, I’ll skin it to look at the muscles and salt the hide in case I have enough money to get it tanned. In the old days, says Lorraine, they skinned a lot of calves because the hide could be used as a disguise for an orphaned calf so a bereft mother cow would accept it as her own. But now they use a tranquilizer that makes the cow groggy and accepting. Tanned calf hides used to sell briskly when Scriver Studio was still a taxidermy shop.
When I was a child, Walt Disney included the birth of a buffalo calf in “The Vanishing Prairie.” (It’s still vanishing.) This was considered daring and innovative since it depicted one of the four taboos on mammal life: birth, death, excretion and sex. No one wanted to face all those questions about how the calf got in there in the first place. People were off the farm now and didn’t want to remember shoveling manure. Today on YouTube one can probably download human birth and probably even versions of “how the baby got in there.” I didn’t look.
What I liked was bringing a bit of polymer clay (the calf is 3” X 5”) to life in my hands, an art birth. I got the proportions about right, the legs and back in roughly the proper shapes, then the head -- ears last. It was still only clay. I took the little calf in my hands and gave it a twist. Suddenly it was alive and looking at me. I stuck on a red heart-shaped sequin eartag and painted a wet nose. Raleigh will have to give it a name. It’s his now.