Sunday, March 23, 2014


tipis by Tom Gilleon

Recently at “The Russell” suite of auctions and showrooms that occupies Great Falls in this week every year, a video animation displayed via a flat screen player hanging on the wall was sold as a “painting” for $225,000  It was created by using a program called “PixOils,” by Tom Gilleon, known for his “eternal triangle” endless series of paintings of iconic tipis in romantic natural settings.  Gilleon once worked for Disney

Animated art by Tom Gilleon.  That's Tom.

Whether this new art form is better or worse than what Rembrandt did sort of relates to what you think about the sentimental greeting card art of Thomas Kinkade  who built a sales empire on pretty little cottages or maybe the video greeting card art of Jacquie Lawson with her big dogs and little birds.  If you google popular art about cottages, you’ll see a thriving genre with a certain amount of variation but not too much.  If you think of Gilleon tipis as “Plains Indian Cottages”, you wouldn’t be far wrong.  There’s a fascinating discussion of Kinkade’s art at  I do not think that the comments about Kinkade are exactly relevant to Gilleon, but they are suggestive.

by Thomas Kinkade

Animated video images are a hat trick not much different than the latest innovation in sculpture, which is laser-guided reconstruction of actual objects on whatever scale and in whatever medium is desired.  But then what happens to the concept of the artist?  The idea of seeing through another person’s eyes and skills is still there, but so dependent on technology that it loses some of the magic.  Doesn’t it?  Maybe not.

Basic to the child’s impulse to create is the manipulation of a squishy substance into a depiction of some kind, if only rolling out plastilene snakes.  Many a rural child has found a deposit of clay, perhaps along a river bank, and used it to make little figures, maybe of animals (usually lying down or standing in tall grass so legs are not visible, since it takes a certain amount of skill to create a functional armature of wire or sticks in legs so the creature won’t collapse).

"The Right of Way" by Earl Heikka

Later some people discover paper mache -- or “papier maché” because if it’s in French it’s more artistic in many minds.  This may be as simple as newspaper smeared with flour-and-water glue, or it might be the wood fibre reduced to bits that’s used, for instance, in taxidermy.  Something similar was “marblex”, an air-dry clay, which was used by Earl Heikka over wire and fibre armatures.  Usually treated as mixed-media because bits of string or metal are included, the figures are generally painted realistically.  Since they are fragile, even in the process of construction, and require much experience to use without shrinkage and loss of integrity, they are usually displayed under glass.  They are very difficult to reproduce in bronze, since mold-making generally damages if not destroys them.  Certainly, the charming effects of the color and details are usually lost, which can reveal poor composition and proportion.

The point of a mold is to allow reproduction.  In the early days of Euro-style sculpture, most creations were cut in marble, particularly a white stone found in Carrera, Italy.  Using the skills of woodcutters, or in fact of any kind of carving whether in materials soft or hard, the figure is revealed by cutting away what is not wanted. From origins in sedimentation of tiny sea creatures, marble is metamorphized from softer limestone and plaster.  A block of plaster, and likewise a block of wax, could be carved in the same way, but the fact that wax melts and melds means that wax is almost infinitely malleable.  Charlie Russell is said to have kept a wad of wax in his pocket which he obsessively transformed from one animal into another: a cow, a pig, a bear or even a person.  This sort of working with something by manipulating it is called “haptic.”  Hands on.

Plaster has different qualities.  When it is powdered and baked to get molecular water out of it, it can be mixed with new water -- and perhaps other inclusions -- and will stay liquid for a little while until chemical reactions cause it to turn into a solid again.  The kind of “plaster” can vary from near-stone to a solid so soft that it can be incised by a fingernail.  And its qualities make it ideal for casting:  that is, to be put into a mold in liquid form, let set up, and then removed as shaped by the mold.  A mold can be made of anything that will separate from the plaster and the separation is often helped by using some kind of liquid, maybe something as simple as dish soap.  Molds are often made of something flexible so that they won’t get hung up by overhangs in the castings. 

Wax can be used in molds just like plaster.  But molds might also be made from solid objects, maybe plaster or maybe something else like wax.  It’s possible to model something in water-based clay or oil-based clay (plastilene), make a mold of it, then pour in plaster or wax which will set up and create a new version.  To some people, the realization that duplication is possible in this way is a mechanical addition that makes the object “lesser” because it is no longer unique -- it is multiple.  To other people, the process of making duplicates -- whether carving a new version of a marble bust through measuring and careful observation or creating a series of bronze castings through the use of molds -- simply adds another dimension of skill and therefore value.  

Plaster casting of marble bust of George Washington by Houdon

The great shift in sculpture from marble to bronze (stone-cutting based in Italy to foundries based in France) happened roughly coincidentally with the American Revolution.  The impulse to immortalize heroes in an age preceding photography began with Houdon’s busts and gradually continued through Beaux Arts Paris-trained sculptors from America.  By the time of the Civil War, marble was out of fashion -- bronze was the thing.  Thus do the materials, techniques and impulses of art weave in and out through the value and actual creative skill of the artists.

Blake the Woodcarver's "Hungry Horse"

Bob Scriver, as well as “Blake the Woodcarver,” Ace Powell, Albert Racine, John Clarke, and a few other North Central Montana artists made plaster figurines from molds to sell in shops meant for tourists.  Blake, Albert Racine, and John Clarke all employed a studio machine, a kind of belt-driven pantograph, that would duplicate an object on a lathe system.  This machined blank would then be touched up and finished by hand so as to represent it as hand-carved.  Blake and Scriver did more plaster casting.  Blake’s figures of Indian faces and the “Hungry Horse” were simple but Scriver’s little animals required antlers and sometimes his humans required accouterments

Scriver's Breyer horse

While completing an MA in Chicago at Vandercook School of Music, Scriver went searching for a material to make antlers that would survive a certain amount of handling.  He found a material called P-300, a combination of kaolin and latex that was liquid but set-up into a material that had a little forgiving spring to it, so it would return to the same shape.  It was cast flat in a plaster mold, but with a little heat could be formed into the curves of antlers.  In those days latex was the main material used for flexible molds, so Scriver was used to it.  The antlers, once formed, were attached to the plaster animals, which were then painted with lacquer from an airbrush.  The result was a little “slick” and manufactured-looking, rather like china figures, but to the general population this was attractive.  They sold well.  Later Scriver’s style worked out well for the Breyer horses, made of plastic, which had some of the qualities of Kinkade sentimental art, shiny and brightly colored.

The bison diorama from the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife

Two discoveries improved the manufacturing process, both of them discovered by one of Bob’s students with a bent for invention and materials. (He was originally intending to animate the miniature dioramas of Montana animals that were in a room at the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife and are now “moth-balled” at the Montana Historical Society.) The first was what was then called “parachute cord” but now is known as bungee cord.  The great advantage was that it could hold together the plaster shell that supported the flexible mold so tightly that nothing in liquid form leaked. 

The second discovery was koroseal, a rubbery material that had to be heated to be liquid and poured over the figure to be molded while the sculpture sat on a vacuum table, having been carved out from inside until it was a shell that air could pass through.  Koroseal came as ground up bits and was melted in a turkey roaster.  It was red so it looked like jam.  The stuff clung and, if spattered, burned badly.  But it made excellent and durable molds that took small details, reproducing them accurately again and again.  Using it was nerve-wracking and took major skill.  It’s a kind of synthetic rubber related to teflon.

Using koroseal molds meant that the quality of castings was much higher than those cast from latex molds -- which had been a huge improvement over the original agar-agar (gelatin) molds of the Beaux Arts foundries.  Agar-agar disintegrates and both it and latex can easily distort if misaligned with the plaster shells that supported them.  Koroseal is so durable that when, as Scriver’s will required, the molds were taken to the dump and crushed under a bulldozer, I suspect that some survived.  Destroying them would mean putting them through a grinder.

Bob Scriver

When I googled to find out more about koroseal, I was taken to a Starz series about Leonardo da Vinci, called “DaVinci’s Demons”.  Art is a very “DaVinci” sort of thing if one goes beyond marks on paper.  Digital animation, as produced by Gilleon, or technical advantages like koroseal would have appealed to da Vinci very much.  But I’m not sure his subjects would be so bright and iconic as Gilleon tipis.  Perhaps other CGI artists would have a darker and more “scientific” sort of vision.  Perhaps they should explore “Montana Gothic” as well as “Indigenous Disney.”  On the other hand, dark subjects might not be so appealing to the middle-class prosperous folks who buy art.  In the end, the point is to sell.

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