Category Archives: Sculptures and Figurines Other Than Clay

Two Favorites

I visited the city on Wednesday, August 9, the city being my city, Philadelphia. My husband had a meeting at his downtown office and I decided to take the ride in and go look around.

It was a beautiful day. I rarely go into Philadelphia anymore, but for many years I was here every day – I worked in several different locations (for the same employer) in Center City and in the historic district. I also drove all over the place for my job, so I know a lot about the entire city; but it’s the hub of things I want to talk about today.

On this walk, I visited two of my favorite art pieces, both public art. I’ll show you a little bit and then, if you are interested, you can find more info on the internet or…you can visit Philadelphia!

All right. We’ll start with some relief sculptures on this building.

It’s the US Courthouse (now Robert C Nix Federal Building) and the William Penn Annex of the post office. The building is quite large – it extends a half block on Market Street and goes all the way through the block to Chestnut Street.

The reliefs I am interested in are along the 9th street facade. They were the work of Edmond Amateis and commissioned by the government through the WPA to ornament this 1930’s building.

They depict mail delivery and show it taking place in far-flung locations. I have always loved these sculptures for their style and beauty, and for the idea that mail delivery unites the world, with people working hard to get a letter where it needs to go.

Here they are: they are arranged in two pairs. You will notice a difference in the look of the reliefs – two were in the sun and two in shadow.

First, the cowboy and the city postman:

Next, mail delivery in the tropics and in the far north:

Every time I am in the neighborhood I stop to take a look. For more information look here.


Now, my other favorite. It’s Dream Garden, a huge mosaic located in the lobby of the Curtis Center at 6th and Walnut Streets, right next to the Independence Hall complex. I worked in a building around the corner for some time and when I needed a respite, I’d come over and visit the mural.

It was designed by Maxfield Parrish and created by the Tiffany studios. Many many small pieces of glass, iridescent, opaque, all glowing. It was installed in 1916 in this building, at the time the home of Curtis Publishing (Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post). The building itself is fascinating and beautiful, but I am showing you just the mosaic today.

As a note – there are a lot of pictures on the internet, better than mine – here is its official entry by its owner, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The mosaic was almost lost to the city about 20 years ago, when its owner died and the heir proposed selling it to a Las Vegas casino. In a complicated transaction with public donations and the cooperation of other beneficiaries under the will, the mosaic became the property of PAFA and is now protected as a historic object.

I noticed some “band-aids” on the mosaic that were not there when I last saw it.

A bit of research told me that construction elsewhere in the building had shaken the structure a year ago and damaged the mosaic. I can’t find details on what the restoration plan is, except that it is being studied for repair. I feel better knowing it is in the care of a museum, at least. Anyway, my pleasure was not diminished by the “band-aids”.

All right, now you’ve seen them. My favorites.

Art Camp Day 9 – August 11

Art camp! Art camp! Claudia McGill is at Art Camp Claudia McGill! Art camp! Art camp! (These are the words to our camp song, in case you would like to know…not much of a song but it gets the point across.)

Today the topic was – woodburning. Or pyrography, as it is also called.

I have a little woodburning set but have never used it – my husband did, when he made a sign for my garden. I’ve held on to it, thinking of childhood memories of woodburning projects, but not until today did I get to it.

Before I tried it out (after decades apart, I felt the technique and I needed to re-acquaint ourselves) I got a couple of books from the library on the topic. They depicted a very pictorial approach to the medium – shading and realism and that kind of thing. I had a more rustic view of woodburning projects – a sign for Art Camp Claudia McGill to put over the entrance? but really, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. I really didn’t want to purchase a wooden blank of some kind, box, plaque, etc., and decorate it. And I didn’t want to make a sign for camp, either, to tell the truth…

So when I set to work today, I was still confused as to what I’d be making. But I got a piece of scrap wood and fired up the woodburning tool. Though it came with several points (including an Exacto knife attachment that would allow you to cut plastic stencils) I stuck with the standard point; I think it is referred to as a chisel point.

Woodburning tools 8-16 small

I practiced on the scrap wood and got the hang of things pretty quickly. Let me tell you, that little tool heats up fast and furious. It’s necessary to move slowly over the wood, and the longer you linger in one spot, the deeper and thicker the line. The varied surfaces on the point also allowed me to make different marks. I also recommend working in a well-ventilated room – the process creates a bit of smoke.

I liked the look of things, but I needed a project. Then – I thought of – stick ladies.

You may remember my painted stick ladies, made from wood picked up on my walks. Luckily, I had a pile of prepared sticks ready to go. I grabbed some and got to work.

In each case, I started with the nose and created the face. It gave me a good starting point.

Woodburned lady in process 8-16 small

I made a nice little group of ladies. Each one is plain on the back with her features on the front. I also tried to used fatter sticks, as it gave a better surface to work with.

I will make more of these ladies. Since I had a hard time getting started, I didn’t have the opportunity to do as many as I would have liked – they are addictive, once you get going.

So, the woodburning set is a success. And just as much fun as I remember from about 50 years ago.

Art Camp Day 6 – August 8

I’ve decided to sign up for another week at Art Camp Claudia McGill. So we’ll see what we do there this week. Hard to say, because the counselor doesn’t tell me, the lone camper, what we will be doing until I arrive. Each day is a surprise.

Today’s session involved concrete. Or, to be more correct, mortar mix.

As background, after last week’s stone carving session, I couldn’t get concrete carving out of my mind. What pushed me into it, though, was the half-used bag of mortar mix we had on hand after doing some re-grouting of the bricks on our house.

Mortar mix is a pre-mixed version of concrete specially formulated for non-load-bearing purposes, usually to bond together or fill surfaces such as in brick walls. It behaves in the same manner as concrete as far as carving. Maybe even better, since it is very fine and contains no irregularities.

Mortar mix small 8-16

I decided to keep things simple. I would create small shapes in free-form concrete, let them set up, and carve them into a herd of stone-age-art animals. This way I didn’t need forms or molds, which I hadn’t stockpiled. Each animal would be small, so that if it went wrong from a technical standpoint, such as breaking in half or large parts falling off during carving – well, the whole project wouldn’t be a disaster. I felt it important to work this way because it’s been a long time since I did any concrete carving and I questioned my skills.

OK. I assembled my tools. We had stopped at the thrift shop on the weekend to buy some basics – serrated knives, a table knife, and some pointy spoons, spending about $4. (A grapefruit spoon is even better, with its toothed end, but hard to find). And what I had on hand –  A rasp (an old one, as concrete is ruinous to a nice rasp). Latex gloves (concrete eats skin, leaving little sores that really hurt). A bucket of water. A trowel. Rags. A couple of cardboard boxes. A large mixing container, one that I have used in the past. I also brought the hose around to the work area.

I took all these things outside. I then put some mortar mix into the mixing container. I didn’t measure it, as all I was adding was water, and I would decide on the proportions by eye and feel. Mortar mix is very powdery and should not be breathed in. So I used a small plastic container to transfer it from the bag, rather than pouring. If I were doing a large project, I would wear a mask for this stage.

I then added water, slowly, from the bucket, and mixed it with the trowel. I wanted it to be quite stiff, so that it would hold a shape. I was satisfied when things looked like this:

Mortar mix mixed small 8-16

I let it sit about 15 minutes, then I began shaping it into forms. The technique is to grab up a handful and pat it together, with some force. Concrete cannot be pressed as clay can – it needs to settle into itself. If I were putting concrete into a form, for example, I would then vigorously tap the sides of the form to get the concrete to settle and compress.

I created a crowd of shapes and set them in the cardboard to set up. Concrete does not “dry” – it “cures”. It’s a chemical bonding that continues through the life of the object – concrete just continues to harden. Forever.

I cleaned the mixing container with the hose and went away and left things for four hours. When I came back, I could mark the concrete with my fingernail, but the shape itself did not budge. Knowing when to start carving is a judgement call and takes practice. The shape has to hold up to pressure but also needs to be soft enough to work with. Additionally, time passes as carving goes on, and the shape gets harder, so that needs to be taken into account. I had a lot of animals to carve and I would need to work fast.

My first step was always to rasp or carve away the “skin” on the outside of the shape.

Concrete in progress small 8-16

After that, I looked over each shape and tried to find an animal in it. I guess it took me about 2 or 2 1/2 hours of work to assemble a herd.

Concrete animals finished small 8-16

I used the knives, rasp, and spoons about equally. They each have their strengths. Knowing how the tools work is also something gained through practice. I worked tentatively at first but it came back to me and I worked more fluidly as time went on.

A fair amount of debris is created. After each animal I cleared my board by tossing the leftovers into a paper bag to be thrown out later.

Once I was done, I thoroughly washed each item in the bucket (I had also used the water here to wash my hands at intervals). It is essential to get every bit of concrete off the tools. It will set and cannot be removed later. I also rinsed all work surfaces with the hose and later came out and rinsed off my clothes and the rags I used before putting them in the washer. Under no circumstances can anything be washed in a sink inside – concrete will flow down the pipes and, as it can set underwater,  will block them. So, if you do concrete, remember this fact, if you remember nothing else!

I then left the animals outside overnight. The next morning, I came out and rinsed them with the hose.

If I were making larger items, or ones prone to cracking, such as stepping-stones, I would wrap each item in a wet towel and cover it in plastic, so that it would go through the initial stages of curing very slowly. I’d leave them in this state for about a week. With these little animals, though, it’s not as likely they will have those problems, so I will just come out and rinse them several times a day for a couple of days. I also have them set in the shade – the sun is not good for curing concrete.

OK! Stone age animals made. I’ll take some better pictures in a week or so, when they are ready to join the world.

Art Camp Day 3 – August 3

I’m at “art camp”. This very select camp caters only to me. What luxury! A nice way to try out some new activities at the end of summer, isn’t it?

All right. Today’s activity was stone-carving. I’ll give you some background first.

Maybe ten or more years ago, I did a bit of concrete sculpting. A lot, actually. I made mosaic stepping-stones and other items as well, but sculpting was the most rewarding to me. I used the technique of mixing the concrete, pouring it into containers such as milk cartons, cardboard boxes, etc., and letting it set up for several hours. Then I stripped away the form and carved the wet concrete with a variety of tools, including steak knives, grapefruit spoons, etc. Sometimes I incorporated my tile work into the pieces. Here are a few examples:

Concrete is demanding, though. It has to be done outside, I need to be around for the whole day, more or less, and it is really hard on the skin, even with gloves. Usually I made a lot of items at once so as to make the labor and trouble of mixing concrete worth it, and that meant working fast.

Also, the supplies come in large quantities – for a 3:1 mix of sand to cement, that means several bags of sand and a 90 lb. bag of cement. Additionally, cement starts to lose its powderiness when the bag is opened, clumping in small lumps on its way to becoming one big lump as the contents are exposed to the moisture of everyday life. It needs to be used fairly quickly – you don’t hold on to a bag of cement for years. Another reason for making a lot of items in a short time.

On the other hand, I liked the process and the results I got in the concrete. So, I was wondering if stone carving might work instead. I could still be carving a sculpture but with less labor, stress, and mess.

So I looked into it and ordered a little kit from Dick Blick. It contained three pieces of stone, soapstone and alabaster, each the size of — a bar of soap. There were some tools, a couple of rasps and a knife; and a dust mask. I took all of these items out to my back yard and set up on a table.

After examining the tools and putting on the dust mask, I got to work. I found the stone to be easily scratched; the rasps all made marks very readily. It also had no lumps or flaws to catch the tools, as sometimes happens in concrete.

However, as I worked away, I also found that progress was slow. The rasps cut away stone in tiny amounts, creating a fine white powder. I needed to use a good amount of force, more than my hands were happy about. It took a lot of work to get rid of the squarish look of the stone and I don’t think I really succeeded in making the person-figure I wanted.

At the end of the project, I washed the stone and oiled it with some from the little bottle provided in the kit. I am sorry to say that if I want to carve, stone carving leaves me cold. I do think I would have done better to have had a saw or the like to cut away bigger pieces and get more quickly to the shape I wanted. A better selection of tools is a necessity.

But I am disappointed in the lack of contrast (I am sure my carving skills are responsible, as I think there needs to be more relief) and also – I just didn’t enjoy the feel of the stone, how I had to handle it to work, and so on. Intangibles, but important, if I’m doing this for pleasure.

So here is the final figure. I think I could improve her, but I don’t want to put the effort in. I am not sure why, in the oiled version, she looks like her chest has had bad cosmetic surgery – I made no changes from what you see in the last picture, #5,  above. Sigh.

My son has said he might be interested in trying some stone carving – so, that’s good! I can give him the kit and let him see what he comes up with.

Newcomers #2

Here is the rest of the recent crop of paper dolls.

I make them from the same store of cardboard that I collect for postcards and ATC’s – cereal boxes, popsicle boxes, crackers, butter, cookies, you name it. I cut a person-sized rectangle (these people are all about 5-6″ tall) and create the figure (my source for body parts and clothing is currently back issues of Architectural Digest that my library so nicely saves for me). Then I cut out around the person and there you go – another personality added to our world, and so quickly and easily too.

Paperdolls 12-15 #4 small Paperdolls 12-15 #3 small Paperdolls 12-15 #2 small

Newcomers #1

During the Christmas holidays, we spent some time in front of the television watching old movies. I occupied my hands by adding to my paper doll collection. I do have quite a crowd of them now. Anyway, here’s a group you can meet.