The PPC Imaginarium awards

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Remembering this competition still gives me a weird mix of frustration, joy and outright anger. The cement sculpture I entered had taken two years to cast, though the original clay master took only a few months.



This was how I learned to make moulds, because the original mouldmaker I tried to send it to had no idea how to mould art, how to capture all the detail and make a stable container for casting a sculpture in such a technical material as cement. I missed the deadline for the first year and spent the next year learning, spending money on new materials, experimenting, failing, crying in frustration and finally completing a perfect casting in time for the next year’s competition.

Another strange impediment that came up was that the delivery address that was sent to the artists was completely wrong. I wonder how many pieces never even made it to the first round of judging. Then, to make matters even more befuddling, the category finalists and public were sent the wrong addresses and dates for the exhibition opening, no doubt leaving many art lovers and patrons with a bitter taste in their mouths.

The PPC Imaginarium sculpture competition was also how I learned the vital importance of insuring any artwork that is travelling to multiple large exhibitions. The organisers dropped it during the Johannesburg Art Fair. I had to ship a replacement for the next exhibition and thankfully I was already in the process of casting an edition of 24 sculptures. I sent the (fully insured) replacement and asked the competition organisers to send me back the original which they had apparently knocked off a plinth! They managed to box it and send it to a forwarding address in Pretoria but refused to pay to ship it back to me. It’s still in the sealed courier box, untouched while I work out exactly what to do with it.

A few fellow artists and some collectors have suggested that I repair it using the Japanese method of Kintsugi and I may elect to do this with several cement sculptures that have suffered falls and other accidents. For now though, it sits in its box with all the tape and labels unbroken, in what I find an amusing contrast to the contents. I think I keep it that way just in case someone from the PPC Imaginarium competition challenges the story. Not that I have any rational reason to worry, I think it’s just my nature to be cautious with bullies.

PPC has since stopped its support of the arts and hosting this inspiring competition. Most large corporations in South Africa have pulled out of competitions and programs which directly contribute to individual artists careers, instead they seem to prefer established institutions that uphold the entrenched “big names”

It’s sad for the artists and the quality of art in general for the entire country as the barriers to entry for fresh expression and new art grow ever higher, while the art lovers get bored of seeing the same big names cycled again and again through what is left of the incestuous art media.

Needless to say after all that, I remain very hesitant to enter art competitions, regardless of my existing successes

The making of “Wabele – Our Gods Go With Us”

Imagined, Making of, Media, sculpture, Uncategorized
Everything led up to this

Our Gods Go With Us is named “Wabele” because this is the name given to the wooden sculptures that are made in central Africa with an amalgam of features from different animals. These are protector spirits, frequently horned but always unpredictable, powerful and wild.

The horned god travelled with humanity in legends as we spread around the world but he began with the very first of us, here in Africa.

I have made him in 2 separate media for now: polyurethane resin which is light, incredibly portable and starts out a pristine, almost unnatural white and then ages to a perfect ivory, and cement-resin which is ebony black, far heavier, far tougher and can easily withstand the abuse of humans and the elements for hundreds of years.

Original sulphur clay

This is my initial clay sculpture, sans ears. I had foolishly been getting oil-based clay that contains sulphur until very recently,

The thing is that both natural rubber latex and silicone rubber moulding materials absolutely hate this stuff. Natural rubber because the oils in the clay leech into the mould once the water has evaporated and this disintegrates the rubber, turning it into a soft, crumbly mess. Silicone, by contrast simply refuses to cure in the presence of sulphur so it stays sticky and runny and messy indefinitely. Worse, it’s impossible to wash off with either water or solvents because it’s oil-based, meaning water runs off it and turpentine or other solvents dissolve the clay of the sculpture along with the silicone. This means I had to spend ages priming every crease of the original sculpture before making the mould.

Latex
Natural rubber latex drying on the horns
Priming the sulphur clay

Here are pictures of the priming process for the head and the first layer of latex going onto the horns. I love using latex, especially for small sculptures because it is non toxic and also incredibly flexible and strong. stick a little cotton-wool or gauze in strategic places and you have a freestanding mould that captures exquisite detail and pulls neatly off even the most improbable shapes. This piece is the largest I’ve made to date so I definitely needed the support of a mother mould though, otherwise I would have still been painting latex layers well into my 90s.

You’ll notice here that I removed the horns and ears to make moulds for them separately. I left hollow sockets on the head thinking this would make reinsertion easy and allow me to add plenty of resin to the gap, thus ensuring a good bond. This would have been perfectly intelligent if I had managed to make sensible, flat cuts – and if I’d not horribly damaged the insertion points while making the first (failed) mother mould out of polyester. Looking back, it would have possibly been less painful to simply carve some holes in my own skull. As it was, I patched up the original and muddled along with my first casting. I haven’t been able to find any pictures of the disaster but they might have upset sensitive readers so it’s probably just as well.

Mother mould for the latex
original natural rubber mould and shell
The seam line fits neatly into the shell, separated using foil

Here are pictures of the second mother-mould I made out of plaster-of-Paris. The simple problem throughout the whole first and second attempt is that latex gets annoyingly thin when it dries, even with 20 coats I hadn’t compensated for the detailed undercuts on the chin and inside the stupid horn holes. After the debacle with the polyester I made some improvements using latex-soaked cotton-wool but latex also doesn’t stick well to itself after a few days of curing so not much could be amended.

This meant I had to make the mother mould in 6 pieces. Unbelievably,  everything fitted beautifully, but: The next disaster came when I had to remove the mould after the first casting in hard resin and pulling it off became took hours because the rigid mother-mould was almost completely wedged undercuts without judicious use of the chisel. Also, in the process of slush-casting the thin wall of the latex pulled away from the mother mould and warped the neck a little. I was very proud of myself for not smashing everything up to use as calcium for the vegetable garden.

Silicone

By the time I had the good sense to just use silicone I had already damaged the original sculpture trying to remove the first polyester support, so I lazily decided to “fix it in post”

Surrendering to silicone sanity

(Note: Never fix it in post. Most people have fun answers to the question of what to do with a time machine. I should never be entrusted with this as I’d casually rip holes in quantum probability to fix every “fix it in post” decision I make in my studio. It would break from overuse in a week and I’d never have travelled further back in time than 48 hours)

This is one of the horns bundled safely in silicone. I realised after the fact that I’d left myself a hole at the base of the horn for pouring in the resin or cement but the curve of the horn meant that I’d be fighting bubbles and gravity with every pour. Sensibly, I sealed up the bottom (thankfully silicone sticks fanatically to silicone and not much else), and I cut a new pouring hole at the mid-point.

Happy face for when something actually works
It’s a learning curve

This is a smiley face I made with the beautifully cast resin-cement horns and ears. I was delighted with the casting, not so much with the whole mould making process.

Still, I continue to learn and it’s not like I can stop now. There’s no 12 step program for curiosity.