Tuesday, March 25, 2014


A rather over-zealous journalist arrived in the studio in the early Sixties, on the hunt for a spectacular story.  Bob knew her, because she’d been there before, and she was the little peppy brunette type he liked.  Somehow she got her notes a bit scrambled (or possibly she never took any) because she announced in the article that the secret of Bob’s success was a fabulous new substance he used called “Petrolane.”  That was the name of the gas company.  She enthused that this stuff would harden, by-passing molds, but took excellent detail and wasn’t fragile.   There was no such thing at that point.  It was what everyone would have liked to have had.

A doll-head and the mold for it.

In fact, Bob was still using the old-fashioned method of creating a figure in plastilene, making a hard mold around it out of plaster, pulling the hard mold apart -- which destroyed the plastilene where it had to be pulled out of overhangs -- then filling the hollow with hydrocal, a much harder form of plaster.  The mold that had been against the plastilene was tinted blue and sealed with a mix of shellac and bear rug dye which soaked into the mold a bit, so you could tell if you were getting close to the casting.  Then the tense precision task of cutting the blue mold off with small chisels and scrapers took hours.  Bob was very good at it, just as he was at the other ticklish little techniques of transference.  He didn’t want people around.  Very few other artists were patient enough to do this and, in fact, specialist technicians did it where there were enough artists to make a living at it -- and keep their skills sharp.

A formal bust and the mold for it.

Now the technical means began to make life simpler and easier.  One of the first inventions was “cold molding compound” which came in several varieties but was most usually black tuffy, a kind of rubber with a carbon filler. “FMC 200 is the strongest of the polysulfides, can be used for casting almost any materials and is widely used by foundries.  Ideal for wax or plaster casting.  (Not to be used with resin or silicone casting.)”  http://www.sculpt.com/catalog_98/RUBBERS/polysulfide.htm   It was nasty stuff, but nothing like the difficulty of Koroseal.  The quality of the mold wasn’t quite as good.  The stuff was stretchy but also would tear, and sometimes distort if it weren’t stored exactly right.  Bob began to use straight pins to keep things in the right place.  Someone said we could keep the rubber more flexible if we rubbed them with Vaseline, but that turned out to deteriorate the surface.  A chemist who came through told us of another substance that would work for sure, but it was so carcinogenic that Bob wouldn’t let me use it.  Not that he thought of gloves.
A Work by Lyndon Pomeroy

Readers of the Great Falls Tribune in recent days have seen a photo of a Lutheran church with a big abstract Jesus over the door.  (The church has had a schism over gays, which is the content of the story.)  The work of Lyndon Pomeroy, it aroused competition in Bob who was then asked to make a bison in that style for Great Falls High School and a rustler for CMR High School.  The technical angle was that these were made of Corten steel, AKA “weathering steel” which would form a rusty crust or patina that prevented corrosion, meaning it didn’t need painting.  Abstract artists make huge welded pieces from the sheets it comes in.   Pomeroy was a grassroots guy in bib overalls who turned out a LOT of work. 

The Guardians of the North.  Chief Mountain in the background.

Later this genre of sculpture became very popular on the rez because of the huge number of junk cars to be stripped for material.  At that point chrome and the car paint became part of the use.  Also the government’s idea of what rez folk should learn to do was welding.  Now there are “guardians” at the compass points of the rez, plus a large assembly of totems (elk, wolf, bison) at the Indian Health Service Hospital, and other  spots, plus a jingling set of icons on the street light posts.  Most ranchers and farmers have learned to weld and often make joke sculptures out of junk.

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Saint Gaudens across the street from 25 Beacon Street.

But as much fun as it was to create such things, Bob Scriver’s prime work was realistic figures, well-cast and patined in the classic style of the Beaux Arts bronzes we know best as heroic-sized monuments and as the Western bronzes in the Oval Office.  As long as casting took enormous skill, strength, and resourcefulness, the objects held their value as beautiful and precious.

Then came ceramic shell casting, which I call “chicken fried bronze” since the way one prepares the wax is by dipping it into a kind of batter or slurry, then rolling it in crushed glass over and over until when it dries it has formed a shell strong enough to hold the molten metal.  There is no need to fuss with some of the difficulties of Roman Block casting because there are not so many feeder sprues or vents to figure out and place.  Gases vent through the shell.  This was developed for machinery in the space age, strange alloys and miniscule tolerances for gears and housings.  At this point it became possible to buy a “kit” for bronze casting for a few hundred dollars, another kit for patinas, and be a foundry caster practically overnight.  A lot of bad sculptures got made into bronzes.  It was the equivalent of replacing diamonds with zircons -- the same general effect if you didn’t really know.  


Most customers of bronzes depend upon the gallery to know.  The same as they depend upon the gallery to know the difference between a Russell painting and a Seltzer painting, though their work was so similar that even Seltzer’s grandson was only sure it was a Seltzer because he had a print of the original painting that included the part at the bottom where the original signature had been cut off.  The usual Russell experts had said it was Russell’s.  Cutting the signature off the bottom first added a zero to the value of the painting -- then finding the proof of the artist dropped the zero back off.  Maybe more.

Gordon Monroe and his work on the right.

Fiberglass had been around for quite a while but mostly for things like boats, big fabricated objects like -- oh!  Monuments!!   Much cheaper than bronze.  But heroes are far more ephemeral these days anyway.  Gordon Monroe, enrolled Blackfeet and sculptor in his own right, had begun as Bob Scriver’s fiberglass specialist.  At Bob’s death the two huge rodeo sculptures Monroe made in fiberglass were moved to Babb Public School near St. Mary’s Lake.  Then the bucking bull was moved back to what had been the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.  In the process, it was dropped and broken.  Monroe was able to repair it, which is another advantage of fiberglass. 

"An Honest Try" by Bob Scriver

The wonders of plastic continued on until at last it was possible to buy little blocks of stuff called “Sculpy” that were indeed just like the wonder material that the peppy journalist had described thirty years earlier.  It will stay soft until baked in an ordinary kitchen stove. Mostly used by hobby doll-makers or jewelry makers, Monroe uses it to make Blackfeet figures, slightly bigger than the ones Scriver made.

Cosmic buttons

Sculpey is a brand of polymer clay made by Polyform Products in the United States. Sculpey was first created in the early 1960s.  In the late 1960s it was then discovered that this compound could be molded, baked, sanded, drilled, carved and painted. “Sculpey closely resembles Fimo, another brand of polymer clay. Sculpey is a less rigid composition which better suits modeling, while Fimo is better suited for twisting into cane and bead making because the colors do not blend together as readily.” 


Angus calf

Even I can make figures of Sculpey and Fimo, though I always make animals lying down to avoid the need for armatures.

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