Do It Like Michelangelo

Kathleen Griffin In Progress Leave a comment   ,

“First, you draw a picture the size you would like the sculpture to be, then poke a million tiny holes into the contour lines of the drawing…”


On October 1st I got an email from Kate at Humankind – the molds are done, the first  butterfly should be out of the mold and ready for gold leaf in about a week. It feels a little miraculous. But it goes like this, step by step by step by step.

A finished butterfly makes this no longer a thick pile of plans and drawings, but a physical reality. The first butterfly will be here waiting for the rest to come. Now, I should talk about how the first butterfly got here.



The sculpture itself, which is what this is about, it basically made the same way sculpture ever was. At least the beginning part. I didn’t make figurative sculpture like this when I was in school, I mostly learned to do this from a picture someone showed me when I was 19, from a picture in a book of how Michelangelo did it, in a certain way.

First, you draw a picture the size you would like the sculpture to be, then poke a million tiny holes into the contour lines of the drawing. Then, you take your only pair of silk stockings that don’t have holes in them out of the drawer, cut their leg off, fill them with chalk or charcoal, wrap a rubber band around the top of the little wad of  chalk and silk, and then dust the chalk through the drawing, and onto a carvable object. Next, you carve the object out of the drawing.

This is how I make a giant butterfly and by extension, all the large drawings that go with it, dusting through the stencil that I made from a drawing. I carve the butterfly out of foam and then either apply a layer of oil cray to work the detail into or as in this case, a layer of wax that I carve the detail into and then smooth out with mineral spirits.

I began this process two and a half years ago in my studio in Astoria. I drew out the first set of wings when the butterfly was ten feet in wingspan. Then I poked a thousand holes in it with a small nail.

The first night I needed to begin dusting out the butterfly wings, it was already late, a long studio day preceded by hours of poking a nail through the drawing.  Cooper, my sculpture assistant/intern at that time, was over helping me. He received a master lesson in practicality that evening, as I, with a lamenting sigh, realized that we had hit a wall, that I didn’t have any cheese cloth or similar fabric in the studio portion of my apartment, A.K.A., my living room. A trip to my lingerie drawer was going to be necessary. Coming back into the room with one sheer black leg, staring at it for a minute, I looked at Cooper, and he laughed, understanding that this was not its anticipated destiny, but that the path of the artist sometimes called for action and sacrifice.

I think in the case of Michelangelo, he substituted marble for foam, and I’m not sure what he used instead of silk stockings, probably some oil cloth but you never know.

After that I spent the next month carving the butterfly out of foam with the occasional help of  Cooper and Samuel. A few months later I brought the first prototype to Binghamton University for a lecture and show I was doing there. In the gallery I began to worry that the butterfly might be too small. By the time I got him back to New York I was almost certain, so I brought him to the site of the ruins and placed my carved foam butterfly in all his detail, in front of the Ruins, to try and understand what he might look like flying above the Ruins.

After about an hour, I had to face facts, I thought he was too small. Back to the drawing board – new drawing, new carving.

This finally ended up happening once I moved to Brooklyn, after I had given up my studio in Astoria. Then I took the new drawings again dusted them out on the foam, cut them out and began carving again. The carving was done with a small exacto knife primarily. Because I had already made a butterfly and put and intense amount of work into it, I was committed to making sure that in return for all that wasted effort, the new butterfly would be better. I took the now roughed out foam down to Philadelphia, and there with Kate and the old butterfly as a reference, put in another 20 or so hours, carving him. Once roughly finished, he sat in her studio for almost another year, waiting for the steel armature to arrive. At that point he was cut up and adjusted to make sure he actually matched the plans. Based on the shape of the steel he found his final form, slightly taller than the original heliconius butterfly he is based on.

Once I was happy with the foam, I began brushing a thick layer of wax onto him. This gives him his super smooth surface as well as fills in any undercuts my carving would make in the mold and generally unifies the detail. I thinly apply the wax, rub it in with mineral spirits and the pattern for the butterfly is done.

At that point, I pass him off the Kate and Joel. They make the open face molds, using rubber for the actual mold and epoxy resin for the mother molds. For anyone not familiar with mold making, in many cases, as in this one, it is advantageous to have one of your molds, the primary, made out of rubber, which holds all the detail but is flexible enough to allow for a rigid material to be pulled out of it without getting stuck. After this is cast, a mother mold is made around it. This is a rigid mold that holds the structure and form of your pattern, so the rubber mold doesn’t flop around. Once this is done, the mother mold is used to lay up the epoxy and fiberglass in layers, after a few layers are put down the steel is set into it and then submerged inside the layers of epoxy resin and fiberglass. This allows the final butterfly to look exactly like my original foam and wax prototype while still being able to withstand 110-mile-an-hour winds.

Ta Da! Then, it is on to gold leafing.


-Kathleen Griffin


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