The Making of “Wabele: Our Gods Go With Us”

 

Because I’m very technically minded I thought it would be fun to share my slightly chaotic creative process here. I’m also a bit obsessed with learning things on the internet and I seem to learn as much from other sculptors mistakes as from their successes so, since this is also only the third life-size sculpture I’ve ever made I thought I’d share my learning curve.

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.

This is my initial clay sculpture, sans ears. I had foolishly been getting oil-based clay that contains sulphur until very recently, then having to spend ages priming every crease of the original sculpture before making the mould.

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.

Latex

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

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”

(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 such a powerful device 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.

 

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.

 

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