I took the coolest commission last month. A friend of mine has a beautiful solarium in her house. (It’s incredible: a two-story Bougainvillea blooms, a fountain gurgles into a pond and banks of ivy flank the walkways.) She also has lots of family connections to Africa, which of course, means she has a collection of African pieces. So she decided to gather her African collection in her solarium and the centerpiece would be . . . a 5-foot tall ivy-covered giraffe topiary form! Would I make it for her?
How fun! So different from my usual projects (I seriously can’t think of the last giraffe topiary form I’ve made) and such a great challenge, too. But I’m not going to lie: I’m not a sculptor. Sculpting is much more complex than my usual forms. 2D, I can do. But 3D? Well, that’s a whole new dimension, isn’t it?
Before I began this project, I spent a lot of time engineering the giraffe in my head. I knew that the giraffe’s front legs would have to be sturdy enough to support a towering neck (and heads are heavy!). And I wanted long lines, not pieced parts, for structural integrity.
My first attempt looked like Picasso’s bull drawing. Using a bale of crazy-heavy wire, I tried to make a continuous outline that I would later flesh out with 18-gauge wire. Abstract and interesting, but in the end it was too difficult for me to bring to life.
So, with my first concept trashed, I casually asked my art teacher friend for his advice. He asked off-hand, “You mean, besides tubes of chicken wire?”
Well yeah, besides that! I played it cool. Like I was really asking for a grander idea. Not just chicken wire tubes. But that was it!! Apparently chicken wire tube armatures are a Sculpting 101 basic, but I sure hadn’t thought of that.
The chicken wire worked perfectly. I used my dressmaking skills to cut “pattern pieces” out of the chicken wire that would create 3D form and shape. And with this forgiving medium, I was able to add little nuances that gave the giraffe character. I compressed the knees a bit for knobiness and I arched the long neck so that his head is a little cocked, as if sharing a confidence. (My brothers all have this habit of inclining their head in conversation, as if they’re giving the listener their ear. A charming habit. So I gave it to the giraffe.)
It turned out to be one of the coolest pieces I’ve ever made. And as he’s slowly covered in ivy, I’ll think he’ll look even better.