Since I don’t regularly make art -- I write -- I tend not to establish good standard practice like clearing a space and allotting enough prep time, but since I live alone and the cats no longer prowl the tabletops (they’re getting middle-aged and fat), it’s safe (relatively) to leave things out. I think I’ve already mentioned that I don’t really clear space the way I ought to, so my projects have a tendency to overlap in ways that sometimes do damage. In short, I’m unprofessional.
This time I tricked myself in a new way. I’d been so pleased with the little figure of the child with arms up, that I rushed into making a new figure of an older boy, curled up in pain or despair. This time I’m using Sculpey III instead of Super Sculpey. All these polymer clays come as extruded sheets and at first the clay is crumbley, a little like feta cheese. One has to knead them in the fingers for a while to get them to be responsive in the way clay ought to be. I hurried -- it’s a LOT of work to knead the stuff a bit at a time. I had my wire skeleton and the aluminum foil crumpled onto it, so I started to pinch on the clay sooner than I should have.
My payback was that last night when I went to work on it again, it all crumbled in my hands. Now I have to start back close to the beginning. It’s a beginner’s mistake, an amateur’s mistake, a kid’s mistake, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just practice, experience, learning. Which is why it’s important to really enjoy the doing of it -- even the re-doing of it.
It’s pleasant to sit at a table and squeeze this stuff in my fingers, though it takes a good deal of muscle and some time. Even Bob’s plastilene had to be warmed up before it could be used easily and my job in the evening was often to sit beside him and knead the plastilene until it was warmed up enough for him to use. So I know how to do it. The associations I have with the act, though not the substance, are familiar and pleasant. I only failed to prepare the clay because my ego got in the way. I wanted to do this for the admiration of others. Not that it wasn’t a strong idea that I wanted to complete, but that I was distracted, jumping ahead.
I didn’t measure this little fellow either, though I eye-balled him for proportion, which is why I made the head first. People proportions are often expressed in terms of “heads” as a unit. The natural tendency is to make the head much bigger than it would be in real life, which is what makes a figure look like a child or even a cartoon. A grown man is -- on the average -- eight heads tall, but accidents of development or inheritance might vary proportions. I want this figure to be older, a teenager, very thin because he is intended to illustrate how AIDS feels, and possibly when I get to the end I may give him tattoos. Not the sailor or skull sorts of tattoos, but the Maori kind, the jagged solid arm-wrappers. Arms usually reach the hips. Some people have long bodies. John Wayne, if you’ve been paying attention, had short legs in relation to his body length and instead of tailoring (shortening) his jeans’ legs, he simply turned them up in a deep cuff. I don’t know why.
One of the valuable parts of Bob’s estate was his morgue, which is photos cut out of magazines that demonstrate proportions or show where muscles or bones go. His were all carefully glued to pasteboard and sorted into categories, then stored in file cabinets. The Montana Historical Society people in charge of them know so little about art that I’m afraid they’ve discarded them, along with his library of actual measurements of animals. I have my own micro-morgue, which is in a 3-ring binder.
Of course, now a person can go online and find all sorts of things. For this little figure I’ve been researching the shoulder bones, since they show in a thin person, esp. one that is tense and contracted. Shoulder blades, or scapulas, were a revelation. I knew about animal scapulas, but they are not like human shoulder blades because four-legged animals do not have collar bones or clavicles (with a few exceptions). In a human, the scapula is bladelike, but at the top has a kind of hook that reaches around to connect with the clavicle. At the point of connection there are shallow cupped sections where the top of the arm bone, the humerus, essentially dangles, held in by a girdle of muscles, tendons, and cartilage. There are bumps and grooves in all these bones to guide the contracting parts and attach to them. The sternum is the breastbone that connects the ribs in the middle front. The clavicle attaches to that. These bones turn out to be higher around the neck than I imagined, though I can see my own in the mirror. They are vulnerable to dislocation and breaking, while the surrounding tissue girdle can be prone to inflammation or tearing. If you were sword fighting, I imagine you’d try to break or cut the shoulder.
When working on the human figure, one learns a lot about bodies and how they work. I’m beginning to learn the “little” fractal names for the parts that stick out and the notches and grooves. They all DO have names. I’m not setting out to do that. It’s just happening as I go back to look again. It’s amazing that the drawings I see date back to Gray’s Anatomy but clear that drawing bones is a valuable art form.
When I was working with kids, esp. here on the rez, I found that they were reluctant to do things unless they could be guaranteed success. They were workbook kids, fill-in-the-blank kids, who could not go ahead unless they had lines to color inside. The penalties over the decades have been so harsh that they were unwilling to risk any kind of failure. But exploration and experience come largely from tolerating little failures. People who can tolerate failure are hard to manage. A horse that is willing to endure pain, cannot be ridden except through cooperation and willingness. People are not different. And the impulse to make these little figures is still strong.