My process of making a life sized sculpture was a challenge to say the least. I made a point to myself about not doing loads of research around ways to create a life-sized sculpture, as I really wanted to make mistakes and learn and problem solve via my own route. I mean, was this anxiety inducing and expensive beyond belief leaving me broke as hell? Yup. Was it totally worth it? Yup.
I truly did make mistakes. So many that I almost gave up with the whole project a few times. At one point, it just seemed like I was never going to get it right. But once it worked, it REALLY worked and was one of my most satisfying achievements to date
I used real bodies to cast from using Plaster of Paris and then built on them from this base.
I used a friend of mine that has been a model for one of my previous works as my first model, though it turned out that the cheap “modrock” I bought from Amazon was cheap for a reason; even left overnight, it didn’t set.
The back totally collapsed despite having propped it up with scrunched up tissue paper underneath, so I threw it out. Though the front wasn’t perfect, I decided to see if I could save it by building on it and then just create the back of the body building on from the front.
I spent a few days using papier-mâché to bulk her up, using a hair-dryer to make it dry faster.
However, the papier-mâché wasn’t working as I was trying to use it to make huge adjustments, so it ended up being too soggy, despite my efforts to keep each layer dry. It was simply impractical.
I wasn’t able to get my friend back to model quickly enough, so I ended up using my partner to cast on. This time I bought better Plaster of Paris from Hobbycraft. I casted in the same way - full back half and full front half. Though I started realising that I should have done it in smaller parts as it was creating too much weight, and as I added layers to the top, it would drip down and further wet the bottom which was trying to dry - plus it was generally just too heavy as a base without being strengthened. I also think I used too much Vaseline on his body to protect his hair from getting pulled out by the cast. This may have also been the case with the previous attempt too. I ended up having to throw it out again the next day. The tension is really kicking in by this point.
It was time to start again. This time, my boyfriend wasn’t available and so I asked my brother. I wrapped him up in cling film to avoid using Vaseline, whilst still protecting his body. I cast in smaller sections this time around: his front two halves, middle two halves and bottom two halves. We stuck the halves together as we went along. It worked wonderfully and it hardened almost instantly with strength and sturdiness. Although the casts of his legs didn’t work as we attached the two halves together overlapping too much and so it was too small to be attached to the rest of the body. It was also at this point that I decided not to do a standing sculpture as the engineering of how to work out how to make it stand was just a little too ambitious for my first time sculpting.
Deciding on a sitting position, I decided it would be too much to ask of my brother or of anyone else to hold this position whilst being cast on as it would most likely be pretty painful. So I did it myself - not quite realising just how painful it really would be. Myself, my partner and my brother all cast on my legs to try and make the process quicker, but it didn’t really make it any less painful! By the time we got the cast off it took me about 10 minutes just to get up - my feet were blue and cold and I couldn’t feel my legs! Good shout on doing it on myself, I’m pretty sure it was my desperation to finally get it right this time that got me through the pain.
We then stuck the cast of my legs onto the body and it was a perfect fit, I was over the moon. Little did I know what more was to come..
I then began to strengthen the sculpture using an unreal amount of materials. My DIY loving dad was a huge help during this process. We used strips of plaster board - snapping one side of the paper and the plaster, leaving the other side of the paper in tact so that it was able to be moulded around a shape to add strength and thickness to the bottom and top of the sculpture base. We secured it with tile adhesive and then left it to dry with the help of the hairdryer. We used wood to give extra support inside and to also support the head when it would be attached. We drilled holes in the arms of the sculpture, fitting a flat strip of wood through, and drilling further holes in the strip of wood to fit through two more pieces of vertical wood strips.
I then started to add a little papier-mâché again to attempt to bulk her up, not learning from my previous lesson that this doesn’t work, though this time I guess I realised a lot earlier on! I put chicken-wire on the sculpture’s most fragile points, using Plaster of Paris to secure it into place. I tried to use the chicken-wire to form the larger shape of the body but I found it too difficult to accurately manipulate. My dad and I then used MDF to outline the bottom of the sculpture and cut to shape, securing it using Plaster of Paris, Mastic, Pollyfilla, grout and tile adhesive.
It was at this point that my mental stability began to undergo serious challenges. I began to desperately bulk up the body. I wanted thick legs and arms - I wanted her to be generally big and curvy. This proved an apparent impossible feat. I used newspaper, tissue paper, foam, plaster of Paris - nothing seemed to get a natural bulk that didn’t look lumpy and rubbish. After days of desperately trying and many tears shed, I decided I would have to start again.
At this point, with time running thin, I decided I needed to just use a model who had the body shape closer to that of which I was trying to achieve. So another friend agreed to come and let me cast on her body. During this process, I made by far the stupidest mistake of this whole process: I left a room diffuser on whilst casting onto her body. This created way too much moisture in the air, and didn’t allow it to dry; similar to the first ever attempt, even left overnight it was pretty soggy and not fit for purpose. SO MOVING SWIFTLY ON WITHOUT TOO MUCH ALLOWANCE FOR DWELLING TO AVOID A MENTAL BREAKDOWN, she agreed to come back the next day. Not did I only turn the diffuser off, I unplugged it and removed it from the room. The sight of it made me angry!
It was also at this point that I decided not to cast legs for the sculpture, to allow it to stand at the thighs. And finally, this was the one.
I spent the next week strengthening this sculpture inside and out using chicken-wire, more Plaster of Paris, two different types of Pollyfilla, grout, tile adhesive, plasterboard and PVA glue. I also used Pollyfilla to bulk the sculpture up in places like the bum and the arms - I used two boxes of Pollyfilla just on the bum! I then realised that I could have used pollyfilla to bulk up the previous sitting sculpture, but again, no dwelling. I also used pollyfilla and outdoor crack-filler paint to get the finish as smooth as possible before sanding down. It then took me about a week to sand the whole thing down.
My partner allowed me to use his whole head to cast a base for the head of the sculpture - he even shaved off his beard, his baby, for the sake of this work. What a man, huh? Though I guess I didn’t realise quite how difficult it would be to make the face look more female - I thought once I had a base it’d be pretty easy to manipulate but this wasn’t the case to the extent I thought it would be. However, I spent time filling in the eyebrows and lips and adding/lifting the cheekbones. I then sanded the head down, attached it to the body using Plaster of Paris - securing and smoothing over with Pollyfilla.
Once I was happy with the smoothness and satisfied that I had accumulated enough dust in the art studio/my parents converted conservatory through sanding down (almost driving my clean-freak dad into madness), coated with a thin layer of PVA glue, my dad and I brought the sculpture to a Panel Beater he once worked with to get a smooth black finish.
I then took inspiration from my recent connection with a Brazilian Tribe called the Yawanawas. I have been attending their weekend retreats when they are in London as part of the team with the role of the chef, cooking for 40 people (my second passion in life being cooking!). The Yawanawas use body painting as a form of spiritual protection and refer to these patterns as “Kene.” I was incredibly inspired by these beautiful black and red patterns and my overall experience during these retreats, in which I began to see and to observe my own body with a little more love and light. And for this reason, I felt it to be fitting to use this inspiration and manifest it through this work.
My dad, partner and I transported the sculpture to Middlesex as the University had organised for everyone’s work to be transported by professionals to The Islignton Arts Factory where we would all be exhibiting our work.
Although I watched the transporters place my sculpture into the van - and RUSHED to Islignton to try and get there before them to watch them place it in the gallery, public transport just wasn’t on my side, they got there before me. When I unwrapped the sculpture, she was damaged. I could feel eyes on me as I sat there with my back to my peers and it took all of my might to hold back tears. So instead, I got my hands on some pollyfilla, filled it up, painted over it and tried to accept that it had happened - even though, to ME, the damage was still visible. Oh well.
Apart from this, setting up and exhibiting my work was really fun. Most of my peers worked really hard and well together to get everything up and running. It was lovely to have all my family there to support me and to show off all my hard work. The most common question people asked me that night was “can I touch it?” ha!
Making this sculpture was an absolute roller coaster of challenges, emotions, lessons and understandings. Although unbelievably difficult at times, I don’t regret my decision to work it all out for myself. If I had just followed someone else’s guidelines on how it worked out for them, I wouldn’t have truly understood the process to the extent that I now do. I’m super pleased with how it all went, it was all perfect!