Finding the Ewe in Me
Updated: Apr 6
When asked to sculpt a particular subject I may find my brain to be particularly empty. My best ideas don’t often come to me on demand, except in the rare case that a truck might be barreling toward me, (at which time I do step briskly out of the way). But I have always enjoyed making animals, and so if given enough freedom to pursue an image in my own way, I usually will take on that kind of commission. There is a lightheartedness that I feel in my depicting of an animal that can open up creative channels for me. I know that given my style, I won't likely be asked to sculpt Lassie, or some heroic police dog that gallantly saved a family from a burning building. That is a job for another sculptor. I think my customers know that I will be looking for a bit of fun in the image that I'm creating, and that is why they are asking me.
So I agreed to make this sheep. This Icelandic sheep, in particular. I was given a wide berth as to how to depict the creature, and I was asked to let it "happen", as my ideas dictate. That is a pretty broad hole to drive my little truck of ideas through, and that is a good thing. I usually need the room and still might scrape the sides a bit.
When I take on a commission, I don't ask for a downpayment, and I don't ask for a commitment from the customer to purchase the piece when it is done. What if I should fail to capture the subject? In fact, I'm not sure I even try to satisfy the customer's expectations. I know by now that the one sure way to kill ideas is to feel like the idea is someone else’s property. So with that understood, I dive in, with the specific subject as just a starting point. The goal for me is to make something that I feel good about having made, and that I feel confident could be appreciated by others, as a piece of art. If the piece doesn’t work for me, it most likely will not work for anyone. More importantly, it might never be completed. I can’t finish something that I don’t feel is worth finishing. I’m that way with liver and onions on my plate, too.
So with no money hanging over the project, other than a final agreed upon price, I feel confident to dig in and go. Let the process commence.
One of the first things I discovered on this project is that an Icelandic sheep seems to have more in common with a wild bighorn sheep than with a Suffolk or a Merino sheep. Icelandics have a large head, with a dignified look about them.The alert ears and chiseled features, along with their fairly impressive horns got my attention, right off. I probably would have settled for an ordinary sheep, as a subject, as there is plenty to work with there, for a sculptor like myself, who doesn’t feel obligated to produce a realistic rendering. But this Icelandic sheep lends itself very nicely to my sensibilities, if in fact, I have any.
The essence is what I’m looking for, and for me, a wool sheep, most any wool sheep, is first and foremost, a bit comical. Like a cotton ball on tooth-picks. But unlike with an ordinary "meadow maggot" sheep, dumb is not the second thought that goes through my mind when I look at an Icelandic sheep. There is a distinct sense that this animal is relatively bright, and made for business, yet still companionable. More like a goat, in a way.
I have raised sheep, dumb sheep, and these are not that. I think I might still be able to beat an Icelandic ewe in a game of chess, but I would need to keep my eye on the board. She might cheat. And with that poker face, how would I know?
So, going forward, an element of surprise seems appropriate to incorporate, as does the idea of an animal that is really quite ready to go someplace and do something, bedroll intact. Icelandic sheep are long stapled, and so when their wool gets long, they carry with them a certain percentage of their barnyard surroundings. The wool in the flank area straightens and hangs back, and the relatively straight fleece accordions around the neck like a “Slinky” toy as the animal moves about. It is very apparent that the body of the sheep is but a small framed thing inside of a great gob of clothing. Not so terribly unlike one might expect a winter-dressed homeless person in Fargo, ND should look.
Because cast bronze is not particularly given to look fluffy, I have taken the approach that the wool is just an environment within which the sheep lives. The slender legs and the short-haired face are the parts I want to nail down as “sheep”, and the bulky parka is more or less a shell of odds and ends to wander around in. Sort of like a periwinkle. Whatever sticks could be part of the traveling kit. Carry that to a ridiculous length, and I have a plan for this amazing animal. A barnyard of debris becomes a comfortable (?), yet shabby home. Perhaps a home to be well rid of at the next shearing!
I see the sheep I’m creating as something akin to buying a farm. The freedom you may have had when all your belongings fitting neatly in the trunk of your car has been traded away for a different sort of freedom. One that can be absolutely exhilarating, or just about as easily become baggage. Almost inevitably, a farm will become a bit of both things.
So, animal as vehicle, animal as shelter, animal as sustenance, animal as entertainer and companion. Some of these features will outrun the other, no doubt, as the piece progresses.
I intended to record the major points of this process, and share them on this blog as a sort of guide through the creation of a single piece, from concept, through to finished product. But then I realized it was supposed to be a surprise.
There is a remote possibility that the intended recipient could stumble across my blog, and there would go the surprise. So I finished the piece in silence, leaving my blog entirely untended for these many months.
I suppose I could have come up with another blog topic, but that would require a brain that operates on more than one track at a time. Not a strong suit for me. Not a suit at all, really. And one should not be parading around without a suit of some sort. That would be wrong.