Thursday, April 8, 2021

Mosaic Feather Sculpture Installation - Part 1 of 5

I first conceived the notion for this sculpture installation in the Fall of 2017, right after giving birth to my first son, Ethan. I did a variety of pencil sketches, followed by creating color concepts in photoshop and following up with this scale mock up.

Fast forward to late 2019, just months before I gave birth to my second son, Wesley, in early 2020 and I finally began began to realize this momentous concept. I decided that this large project would be installed at the Mystic Valley Sculpture Park which is a collaborative art project between me and my creative and life partner Kyle.

In the above photo, Kyle is standing in a line of culverts which he eventually dug into the ground and filled with concrete, creating bases for the sculptures. Here they are just set up as markers to help me better envision the future installation as it would relate to the surrounding landscape. I repeatedly walked the property trails we built, evaluating how the feathers would read from various vantage points. There were many great instalation options but I eventually decided that I wanted the feathers set against the14,000+ft Blanca Massif seen in the background. 

Above is a preview of the installation - I will share more finished photos in future posts. Including the pedestal, the tallest feather measures 10ft tall and the shortest 8ft tall. Each of the 6 pieces is a completely handmade sculpture, covered on both sides with a custom mosaic of hand cut stained glass as well as handmade ceramic tiles. 

It has been almost a year since we began the installation process but it is just now that I am finding a moment to look back on the project and to blog about it here. The fabrication of the sculptures and the mosaics began in the third trimester of my second pregnancy and continued into the first months of postpartum. If that wasn't enough to juggle, we also had to scramble to move across the mountains in the midst of it all. Needless to say, I was not able to document this intense, colorful journey in as much detail as I would have otherwise done, but still, I have a few process photos to share.

My initial plan was for all the 12 sides of the sculptures to be covered by the ceramic tiles I would create. But following the creation of the first 2 sides of the first feather, I realized that I'd never be able to complete the project before our move date. So the compromise began quickly - any warped or imperfect tiles were all acceptable - this was a bit hard to swallow at first considering my compulsive, perfectionist personality but it turned out to be an amazing lesson for me as well. Next, I came up with the idea, that the two smallest feathers will still be 100% ceramic, the 2 middle sized feathers would be 100% handmade stained glass mosaic and the 2 biggest ones would be a mix of ceramic and stained glass mosaic. This is a great example of how an impossible deadline forced me to be more flexible and in the end resulted in a more interesting effect.

It can often be nearly impossible to realize the scope of work that some handmade objects require and the seemingly infinite steps necessary. For instance, for the feathers that were fully made of ceramic tiles, I first created a map for each side of each feather. Then I hand kneaded the clay, rolled it out with a rolling pin and then cut out each unique shape - repeat a few hundred times. Then I hand carved patterns in some groups of tiles and used pattern pins to roll out designs into others. Once the clay began drying, each tile had to be trimmed and cleaned up.  To minimize warping, the tiles needed to be dried carefully before the bisque firing. Once dried, I marked each tile with letters and numbers and created a corresponding map for the front and back of each feather as seen above. 

I did take a risky shortcut in the above tile making phase though. This project really required me to create special stencils for all the individual shapes in each feather. These stencils would have needed to be scaled up to account for the shrinkage of clay after the glaze firing ... but I decided to eye ball the whole thing and to size up a bit. I just didn't have time for this meticulous but important step - I had to save time somehow. Still, there was more shrinkage than ideal but I made it work in the end with a couple other tricks.

After each kiln unload, I had the awesome mission of matching up my tiles with my map. This was a bit more mind numbing than I expected. But I was so glad that I decided to map out the whole thing even though it was time consuming. Once I had all the tiles laid out, I examined my color sketches and the sample glazed tiles I created for this project. Being new to creating handmade ceramic tiles for my mosaic sculptures, these were so fun to create.

Seeing a freshly fired color sample is super exciting. I wish I had more time to explore this part before committing to my choices, but again, I think the choices I made under pressure worked out really well. I have a tendency to overthink some aspects of my projects, well I used to ... Now having two small children that require 110% of my time, I've entered a whole new chapter of my creative journey. I am learning how to make the most out of the little bit of time that I am sometimes able to carve out for my creative work so making faster choices is a skill I am working on perfecting =) 

Once my color palette choices were solidified, I hand brushed 3 coats of glaze onto each tile. This was another part of the process that seemed never ending but would have normally been a relaxing, meditative exercise if it wasn't for the time constraint. 

Above are a few snapshots of a few of the many, many exciting kiln loads/unloads for the glazing of the tiles. I wish I had the time to have documented this part of the process more because it was so magical. I was so tired exhausted though, racing through every step but these reveals of the freshly fired tiles gave me a much needed dose of adrenaline to keep pushing along!

You might be wondering, whats the big deal, why not finish after the move. Well, this past studio was only under 30 minutes from the sculpture park that I am working on building. And we could not find another house with an art studio in the town we lived in or in the vicinity. So we ended up moving 2 hours away over a mountain pass. I did not think that moving this project to the new house while also having a newborn would be a good idea. It probably would have gotten damaged and now seeing how much recovery I needed after the move and how I needed time to just relax and enjoy motherhood, I'm not sure how much time it would have taken to complete this, probably a full year with my current schedule.

With mosaic feathers scattered all over the studio, my work spaces were a bit cramped but my 8ft by 4ft work benches really proved invaluable. Here I was squeezing in the work of 2 feather sides, glazing new tiles while also organizing the already glazed ones, sizing up the shrinkage rate and any final warping. I hurried a bit with the drying of some of the larger tiles and didn't have time for redos but in a strange way, I find the warpy curves fun. I can imagine, actually planning for these type of curves in future projects but for them to be more calculated perhaps. This was another lesson in flexibility which is key when you are not able to do everything as planned.

To account for the added shrinkage, I added flat marbles in a few selected places where I thought they would look good and not take away from the design. I actually thought it added a fun element to the design. Another win, while trying to let go of my regular perfectionist approach. I can imagine in the past, this would have really bothered me and I would have gone to recut the already cut foam feather shapes for each feather to match the slightly small tiled design. But there was not time to do that and I was too pregnant and sleepy to be messing with the jigsaw anyway 

I'll try to share another post about more of this process in the not so far away future. Its interesting to look back at a project that seems to be a blur in my mind but is actually the biggest, most involved art installation I've ever designed and worked on. 

These feathers have now been installed for nearly a year at the Mystic Valley Sculpture Park in Mosca, Colorado near the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The private park is a collaborative art project with my creative/life partner Kyle. We have a 40 acre property with trails we've been building and slowing adding onto as well as 20+ sculptures installed and more coming each year. 

If you would like to see this installation in person while staying at our private Mystic Valley Sculpture Park while you visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado, we welcome occasional guests

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