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Art in the Round

Badge Requirements

1. Choose four materials from the following list and find out what kind of equipment and other supplies are needed to work with each: Clay. Wire. Soft wood. Papier mache. Prepared sculpture material.

2. Show that you know to care for and use materials and equipment in No. 1.

3. Make something out of each of your four materials: Animal or storybook characters, interesting shapes, mobiles or stabiles.

4. Visit a museum, gallery, studio, or other place where sculpture in different materials is exhibited.

5. Make one finished piece of sculpture designed for a certain place, purpose, or person. Use one or a combination of the materials in the above list.

6. Display your art in the round at a troop meeting or at an art exhibit.

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Art in the Round

 Purpose: Make one finished piece of sculpture designed for a certain place, purpose or person.

Handmade Tale

I enroll in Extreme Paper Mache Sculpture class and make myself a new head of hair.  

I was scouring through catalogs for class offerings in different kinds of three-dimensional art when I came across something called Extreme Paper Mache Sculpture and knew I need look no further. This was the class for me. The last time I’d made something from the material was when I’d constructed a mouse puppet head in seventh grade art class. Like crayons, Play-Doh, and tempera paint, I thought paper mache belonged in childhood. So I was curious to see this prosaic art form taken up a notch. Just how would the three simple of ingredients of newspaper, flour, and water be pushed to the limits?

I got a hint of what was to come on my first day of class at 3rd Ward, a giant workspace and arts education center in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, when the instructor brought out examples of her creations.

The class was taught by Launa Eddy, a multimedia artist in her twenties who managed to come across as both enthusiastic and low-key at the same time. She’s tall with reddish-brown hair and wore decorative jewelry of her own making. 

In addition to paper mache, Launa’s work also includes textile design, illustration, stop animation, jewelry making, cabinetmaking, and metalwork. She’s like one of those naturally gifted musicians who can pick up any instrument and play it; she can take any material and make it into art. But paper mache was her forte. She’d turned to the material when she’d found herself low on funds and in need of cheap supplies, and she’d figured out how to elevate it from a craft into real art.

“Paper mache is a really good material. You can do a lot with it,” she said, and by way of example showed us a red monster about the size of a large dog, an elaborate fish designed to be worn over her head resting on her shoulders, and a rabbit head mounted hunting-trophy style. She’d achieved a smoothness I wouldn’t have thought possible from strips of pulpy paper. Her rabbit head was so sleek and solid, it looked more like plaster. It was leagues away from my lumpy seventh grade mouse puppet.

“I’m not an artist,” I announced as we went around the room and described why we’d signed up for Extreme Paper Mache Sculpture class. It’s somewhat true that I’m not an artist, but I am a dabbler. I enjoy art, and I practice it now and then, occasionally I draw or paint or make collages. But I needed to free myself up by setting the bar low. “I’m here for fun,” I said.

“Everyone’s an artist,” Launa said, like any good teacher who wants her students to believe in themselves. She was here to help facilitate the realization of our visions. And step one was to get down on paper what that vision was. I hadn’t given it any thought and was a little intimidated to start sketching ideas, but I jumped in and soon had come up with two options: a long-haired wig and a beehive wig (with a few bees attached by wire).

My extreme paper mache wig on a mannequinEither was doable, Launa assured me. I liked the whimsy of the beehive, but I feared it might come out looking like a strange, tall shower cap, so I opted for the more flattering long hair. It turns out Launa had also made a paper mache long-hair wig. She showed me a photo —a beautiful blonde piece that looked like it had popped out of a Lichtenstein painting. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” she said. I was willing to put in the time – after all, the idea was to make something extreme. And under Launa’s direction, I felt ready to meet the challenge.

To make a paper mache wig, or anything in paper mache for that matter, you have to start with a form. In seventh grade we used balloons for our puppet heads. It’s an easily removable structure – just pop and pull out the deflated balloon when the paper mache has dried into a hard shell. Launa’s method is to construct the form with wire, which can remain inside for added stability or can be removed by carefully cutting and pulling out.

We used a thin, coated wire. I started with a skull cap and attached the long locks of hair to it. While the wire was very pliable, attaching each piece by wrapping it securely around another piece is hard on the hands. A crimping tool was available, but I found I had better control without it so I sacrificed my comfort for my art, which resulted in many scratches and thumbs so sore from three hours of pressing that I had to put them on ice when I got home.

By the second class, my wire frame was sort of beginning to look like hair, but I was going about it a bit haphazardly. It was hard to visualize exactly how the paper mache would lay across the locks I was creating. Launa helped troubleshoot by pointing out the places where more cross wires were needed for support, but still, I lacked the geometry skills needed for a well-planned shell—I was guessing my way along.

It occurred to me that this would be a good argument for the importance of arts in the schools. I believe the arts are worthwhile and necessary for a well-rounded education and life in general, but because so many people seem to think art classes are expendable when budget cuts have to be made, at least they could consider the engineering skills that would be honed in a 3-D sculpture class. Modern education researchers have taught us that not everyone learns in the same way. There are those who are not cut out to memorize formulas written on a chalkboard. For some kids, math doesn’t click unless they can see or, better yet, create a physical representation of an abstract concept.

As I struggled with my wire structure, I was beginning to suspect I’d skipped an important step. I wasn’t able to visualize the skeleton underneath the locks of hair. I could have used a blueprint to work from, to translate each line on a drawing into a wire in the structure. Without a diagram, I was learning by trial and error.

I knew my form was imperfect, but after two classes of wire-structure building my hands were trashed, and I was eager to move on, so I wrapped it in electrical tape to prepare it for the paper mache. 

Flour-and-water paste is fun to slosh around in. Dipping each strip of paper into the paste, then running the strip through my fingers to squeegee away the excess and then draping the material over the wire was so wonderfully tactile. I set my wig on a mike stand and wrapped the paper strips around the wire locks of hair I’d created, careful to rub the paste around and get rid of hard edges.

Launa sat at the front of the room and chose music for us to listen to while we worked. I was completely absorbed in the mechanics of draping wet strip after wet strip, and I began to enjoy the meditative tranquility that happens when working with one’s hands. The more focused I became on the details of my work, the more my mind wandered and the more relaxed I felt. I can understand why crafts have long been used in the treatment of mental patients, although the benefits could apply to the population at large. It’s too bad that for most of us art classes end before we reach high school.

Seventh grade was the last time my curriculum included a mandatory art class. That year we were also made to take wood shop, metal shop, sewing, and cooking. These “electives” (which we were required to take) were holdovers from an earlier era, when educators felt that boys should know how to build things and girls should be able to cook and sew. But now, in the 1980s, there was no more gender division and the boys and girls took all the classes together, learning both the womanly and manly arts.

In wood shop we made “s” bowls (named after their shape), in metal we made sugar scoopers, and in sewing we made tote bags. I didn’t take these classes seriously. In fact, my mother sewed my tote bag for me (she must not have taken the classes seriously either; never would she have done my homework for me in any other subject).

It’s a shame I didn’t see the use in learning crafts at that time, although how inspired could one get over an “s” bowl? Maybe the trouble was that the classes didn’t continue, we didn’t build upon our acquired skills the way we did in other subjects. How exciting it might have been to have advanced from “s” bowls to functional wood furniture by high school. But things have gone in the opposite direction. By now even the elementary shop classes have been cut from almost all schools nationwide. What a loss that is. It’s evidence of our complete transfer to a consumer culture—we don’t make anything anymore, we just buy it.

“I’ve been thinking about your hair,” Launa said one class about halfway through the course. My wig presented a problem. The interior wire skull cap was filled with sharp edges that poked out and would need to be covered in paper mache, but to mache it would make it smaller and it wouldn’t fit my head. Cutting the wire seemed the way to go, but it would be difficult to remove and without it, the hair may be too weak.

“I think we’ll probably remove it,” Launa said.

“Can that be done?” I asked.

“It will require surgery, but we can do it,” she said.

When I came to the next class, the surgery had already been performed. Launa had removed the wire skull cap for me. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to do it myself, but also grateful that I could move along. But now my hair had structural weaknesses that needed to be shored up. More layers of paper mache would strengthen the wig in the crucial spots.

My paper mache patching had done the trick and the hair shell was now strong. It wasn’t perfect, there were a few holes left where the newspaper had shrunk when it dried. Launa presented to me the choice to apply more layers of paper mache or, if I was satisfied with what I had, I could move on to the finishing process, filling any holes with gesso primer. For expediency’s sake (the five-week class had already officially finished and I didn’t want to drag out the completion of my project), I moved ahead with the gesso.

The finishing process is where the smoothness is achieved. By alternating sanding with primer-painting and sanding some more, lumps are removed and a fine shell is created. My wig is large with a lot of surface area, and any step takes a long time. I decided to speed things along and accept an imperfect finish. The final product is not exactly what I’d envisioned on that first day of class. The crown of my wig is strangely shaped. It’s heavy, uncomfortable, and awkward to wear. I can’t really say it’s a success as a wig. But as a piece of sculpture, it’s not too bad. It’s much more ambitious than my seventh grade mouse puppet. And now I know more about the importance of planning out the structure were I to attempt this again. Maybe I’ll construct an ornamental wig stand and create a display. Perhaps something in copper—3rd Ward has a metal shop. In fact, they offer a more advanced version of all the arts and crafts classes from my junior high roster. I can pick up where I left off. 16 July 2012