Mud Woman Continues – Part 2

So much for trying to post photos on a daily basis while working in Denver. I knew it wasn’t likely, but I thought I would try. As it turned out, after my initial post reality took over. On days 2, 3 and 4 we worked til closing, rushed back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes and then out to one dinner after another. If it were a normal weekend for the museum I don’t think it would have been so hectic. As it turned out, the Denver Art Museum was opening its doors to its newly reconstructed American Indian galleries with Athena’s sister, Roxanne, as the featured artist. For us that meant lots of people coming to see the new galleries – a day for docents, a day for members and a day for the public.

Gala dinner at the Denver Art Museum for docents.

Should you have a chance, the new galleries are really worth visiting. Hats off to Nancy Blomberg, curator of native arts for the Museum, who re-conceptualized the galleries and had the vision to emphasize the unique talents of individual artists rather than lumping them together as Native American crafts people. The overall presentation is beautiful, combining static pieces with digital audio/visual presentations. Here’s a link to Native American galleries:


Curator of Native Arts – Nancy Blomberg.

Posting daily photos to the blog was obviously not a practical idea, but I did discover another option that worked well for those on Facebook. As long as the museum’s WiFi was working I could take photos with the iPhone and upload them directly to Facebook.

For clarity I’m going to rewrite some of what I’ve posted before. The sculpture, a “Pueblo Storyteller,” is called “Mud Woman Rolls On” and will be a 10 to 12 foot high sculpture of a Pueblo mother and four children. I was going to hold off posting any drawings of the final piece, but due to requests, I give in. Here’s a couple of sketches that give some idea about what the finished sculpture will look like.

For comparison’s sake, I’ve also included a bronze sculpture of hers to give some idea of what the feel of the final piece will be. Obviously it’s not clay, but I think there will be a similar feeling.

Bronze sculpture in front of Roxanne’s Tower Gallery – Pojoaque, NM.

The museum’s sign using some of Roxanne’s words gives a good brief description of the piece.

If you aren’t familiar with her work check out her website which is a very nice condensed presentation of who she is and her sculptures – // Google will also yield a bunch of information about her.

Working with/inside a museum clearly has its challenges. I think the first had to do with how the sculpture was to be built. Roxanne wanted it to be made from unfired clay, but in that the upper museum floors have weight limitations, the sculpture had to be relatively lightweight. Building it entirely out of molded clay was clearly out of the question. So what to do? Drawing on our experience of working with straw wattles, that are typically used for erosion control, Roxanne agreed that it would be a great idea to make the core of the structure from the wattles and then simply cover it with clay. And so it began, wattles and pieces of wattles were sewn together, staked when necessary and an initial light coating of clay applied over parts of the sculpture.

Athena using wood dowels to stake the wattles together.

Roxanne and Athena.

The beginning of the arms on the left, Kalin helping Athena with the plaster.

Athena applying plaster.

Museums are very clean places and the challenge of mixing chopped straw and powdered clay, (note: lots of dust), without creating havoc was next on the list Miraculously, the utility room with a good-sized drain and water, was located right next to the space where we were working to make the cleanup of tools and dirty buckets relatively easy. Time will tell how much time is required for the clay plaster/coating to dry and whether or not mold will be a problem. The mix we are using to cover the straw requires a fair amount of time to dry and ideally good air circulation. The actual work space that we have available is really quite adequate, no problems there. Not a concern on this project, but there is always the issue of how the dynamics between everyone connected to the project will go. As for the museum staff, I have nothing but great things to say, they absolutely and completely marvelous in every respect. As for our boss on this project, that would be Roxanne, she’s about as good as you could get, no worries there.

Heather Neilsen, who is the staff person we see the most of at the museum. Her official position – master teacher of native arts.

Both the legs in place.

To the right, the beginnings of the first child.

The end of day 4 as we left the sculpture until a return trip.

The plaster on the back and arms shows the developing form.

As far as I can tell, unless someone tells us different, I would think this to be the first sculpture made out of straw wattles of this size and dimension. There is however a great precedent for sculptures made entirely out of long lengths of straw in Japan. The mud woman sculpture will differ in that it is made from wattles and the Japanese ones are not covered with clay. For never having done this before, the work is going remarkably fast. We may have to slow it down a bit so the work lasts until the scheduled completion in August.

Photo of straw figure from the Akita prefecture sent to us by our friend Kimie Tada, editor of Confort magazine.

It was truly fascinating watching Roxanne sculpt the parts of the body with pieces cut and retied from the wattles. It was like getting a lesson in anatomy. Having done so many sculptures over the years, she clearly knows the human form. Even more amazing, was watching how quickly she adapted to working with the medium. We had brought with us two different types of needles that were to be used for sewing the wattles together, both made by our son Benito, one type from bamboo, the other from a metal rod typically used to straighten wood screen doors. Over the four days that we were there, Roxanne, assisted at times by Athena and her husband Tim, did nothing but sew the structure of the sculpture together. We also mixed a lot of clay and straw together, Athena being the main one to apply it in between talking with and attending to the publc.

4 long days were enough, I don’t think any of us wanted to see any more straw. Roxanne’s and Athena’s hands were sore from sewing complete with a few blisters and more than enough dust. I’m not sure exactly what the next phase will be, Roxanne will need to calculate what happens next in the scheme of things. Whatever or whenever it be I look forward to it.

Tired, but satisfied.

We had extraordinarily beautiful weather while we were there, on the average, days in the 50s. However, we escaped just as it started to snow, projected high for Tuesday ranged somewhere around 5 degrees. Not my kind of weather by any means. From the plane, Tucson never looked better.

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