September 28, 2009

Retrospective: A Crack in Everything, Part Two

Hatching Out (in process), 2005. Mud/clay, plaster, and chicken wire on wood.

I tell you this
to break your heart—
by which I mean only
that it break open, and never close again,
to the rest of the world.
—Mary Oliver, “Lead”

The following is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, a year-long spiritual exploration through artmaking.

I am not a sculptor. I have no training in three-dimensional art. I remind myself of this fact when I get the first glimmers of an idea for a piece about cracking open. The surface will be red Carolina clay, which cracks organically as its moisture evaporates over a period of days. And the armature, or supporting underlayer, will be in the shape of an egg half-protruding from a flat wooden support. …This piece will test my trust in the process. The materials themselves will do most of the work, which means that I will begin the piece but not directly finish it. Once the final mud layer is applied, I will have to relinquish control and accept whatever happens. …

This visual image of an egg with a cracking-open shell springs from a recent visit by my friend Melanie Weidner, a Quaker artist. I have invited Melanie to see my studio space and my work so far on this spiritual and artistic journey. We are struck by the overlapping themes of our current work, including the use of poetic texts. Melanie tells me about a particular Rumi poem that makes reference to hatching open through prayer.

In the following days I am haunted by the image of mud cracking as it dries, and I wonder how I can use mud as a primary media in a new piece. …When I open Risking Everything to the Rumi poem, I am stunned to see the words “I am stuck in the mud of my life.” I cannot ignore such a blatant indicator of the direction I should follow…

So, non-sculptor that I am, I enlist the aid of a fellow artist to mold a half-egg armature on wood using chicken wire. I plan to cover the armature with two or three layers of papier-maché, followed by a layer of gesso, and finally a layer of red-orange mud. The piece will be called Hatching Out.

…At first I’m convinced that the physical process of this piece will be fairly uncomplicated; I just need to complete each step carefully, and the only surprise will be the manner in which the mud will crack. Alas, it is not for me to dictate the arrival of surprises… I’m nowhere near the point where I can apply mud, but cracks are happening elsewhere.

First, because I get impatient with the first papier-maché mixture and add some gesso to it in a devil-may-care moment, that lumpy layer cracks as it dries. But since it’s solidly adhering to the egg shape, I don’t try to remove it. Instead, I decide to add a layer of plaster to smooth out the lumpiness of the egg. Applying the wet plaster with a plastic palette knife is startlingly like icing a cake. My plan is to return the next day and sand down the plastered egg to a uniform smoothness.

Instead, I get sick. I spend the weekend in bed instead of in the studio. When I return, ready to sand down my egg, I find the surface cracked yet again—the semi-smooth plaster surface shows several fractures, and the plaster has entirely cracked off in two areas. Not only that, but the combined weight and moisture of the plaster and papier-maché layers have begun to warp the wood support, to the point of causing a two-inch crack in the support itself.

At this point, I know what I’ve done wrong in barging ahead with unfamiliar materials. … I have to decide whether to forge ahead with this imperfect and unstable piece as it is, or start over with new and better materials. I’m torn. I’m fond of my egg, flawed though it is. But it seems ridiculous to cling unnecessarily to something that isn’t working.

…It dawns on me that this idea of “letting the process lead” requires a more-than-intellectual willingness to embrace whatever happens. It’s not about certainty, a guarantee that the piece will work out. It’s difficult, this business of trust. Sitting down with my journal to ponder my next move, I come across a quote from Surya Das about “work that genuinely develops us as we develop it.” It’s really about the Buddhist concept of right livelihood, but at this moment it feels like an offering, a reassurance that this difficult work of making art is well worth doing. It’s a blessing to be in development. I’m not perfect, and my egg isn’t going to be perfect, either.

…I do a little first aid with wet plaster strips to make the egg’s cracked surface solid and unbroken. …Three days later I come into the studio with a bucket of red Carolina clay and a small bag of dark earth. … I had forgotten how much I like working with clay and mud. Being on my knees in the studio layering mud onto this egg structure feels primal somehow, as if I am building a world. My plan is to cover only the egg and later paint the wood background with black acrylic, but I find myself spontaneously covering the entire background with a thin layer of clay as well, and the visual effect is striking. I don’t know how the background layer will react when it dries, but I’m eager to see what will happen.

…I check on the egg every day to mark its progress. Each time I leave the studio, I know that the egg will be different when I return. It dries unevenly, the moisture slowly withdrawing from one side to the other. In this partially dried state, the egg seems like a living creature, an object imbued with transformative powers. It takes more than three days to fully dry and crack. Finally, all of the moisture is gone. Deep cracks run throughout the clay surface as well as in the dark circle. Despite the cracks, the dried mud is firmly adhered to the egg armature, but I will add a finishing layer of spray-on fixative to ensure that it remains intact.

…The piece becomes irreparably damaged in an accident soon after its completion. One in-process image is the only evidence of its existence. The forced letting-go of this piece, a struggle at every step, feels like a lesson in my ultimate lack of control over the process. Even the final product of the art process is not really final. Some of my artwork may outlast me, some of it will not, but the fact is that whatever mark I make on the world is impermanent. And yet the knowledge of that impermanence fails to persuade me to give up this business of making art. In fact, it leads me to want this divine connection not less, but more. 


  1. I stumbled across your blog. I found it very interesting. It's an interesting path you have taken. I just had to add my two cents worth. I am a paper mache artist and teacher. After working with kids and adults for many years it is unequivocally clear to me that doing art feeds the soul. If that is too strong a word, I'd just say that art feeds people the right way. Doing it takes people out of themselves. And it allows stuff inside to erupt outside of one's self. I'm obviously biased, but my medium is one of the best for this. I've received thousands of photos from people who have made monsters and dragons who describe the experience in almost spiritual terms. It hits something deep. No question about it. Anyway, that's all I wanted to say. Good luck on your journey.

  2. Dan, thanks for the comment! There are definitely specific therapeutic qualities in every material or process, and my own (very limited) experience with papier-mache sculpture leads me to agree with you that it's a very evocative process. How did you get started making monsters and dragons? I'm really intrigued by your technique of using a fabric "skin."