Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Overachieving Chameleon"--A Papier-mâché Sculpture

To me, papier-mâché is a fun, nostalgic craft medium as well as a challenge to master now that I'm a "professional" artist who sells some work now and again.  I'd like to be able to do it consistently well.  So I took on a fairly big papier-mâché project for practice and to participate in a ladder-themed show at Grapes Gallery in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.  

Initially I wasn't planning to make anything for this show, because I was busy with other work.  But then when I went to TorC last month to hang my solo show at January's Gallery, I got inspired by what the other half-dozen or so local artists had done with ladders of all sizes, shapes, colors, etc.  Fun stuff!  And I was assured that I could still add a piece, because they plan to keep the ladders installed for several more months.   

So I took two small, unadorned wood ladders home from Grapes and got going.  Ya'll know how much I love to make mandalas, so my first thought was, how can I make beautiful mandalas on these nice little ladders?  Then, an idea hit me of a chameleon who is changing his skin to match a mandala.  Yikes.  Weird but fun.  

 This is how it starts...
Because some of my FaceBook friends have asked about papier-mâché, this blog post is sort of a sculpture play-by-play.  (Hoping one of my not-to-distant future blog posts will be about travel...but I'm kind of stuck here for a while.)

When I got the chameleon idea, I figured I would have him climbing the ladders somehow, and that I'd make him out of papier-mâché, because I figured some sort of clay figure would be awfully heavy to mount, plus I don't have ready access to a kiln these days.  And papier-mâché is fun!  At least, that's the way I remember it being in the past.

I wired the two ladders together to make a sort of corner lattice, and I created the chameleon by making a rough figure (called an armature) that I could use as a base, using newspaper, wire, and masking tape.  I'd already cut up the entire Sunday paper from Tucson into 1-inch wide strips, and I started dipping these in liquid laundry starch and then draping them over the armature.  I could make a layer and then I needed to stop and let it dry completely (which doesn't take long in desert heat, let me tell you).  

 Some chameleon sketches and ideas
For days, the chameleon did not look anything like a lizard.  He looked almost entirely like a large gray rodent.  It was a bad case of reptile dysfunction.  

After a while, I decided to round out the chameleon's shape and features using another papier-mâché method.  I had a bag of paper pulp called Celluclay which I mixed with warm water to create a clay-like paper mush.  It was easier to sculpt and mold than the newspaper strips, but it also was kind of granular and hard to smooth out.  When I use paper pulp again, I'll want to have a Dremel or small sander handy to smooth the surface before painting.  

 Here you can see the Celluclay being used to round out the figure's shape.  Also note the roll of galvanized electric fence wire to the right, which I used for making this sculpture.  Those of my readers who have followed me since I became a full-time RVer in 2011 may remember when this same roll of wire saved my bacon after the back bumper of my Toyote Dolphin fell off on I-10, somewhere just this side of Biloxi.  This wire was one of my all-time best garage sale purchases.
This time, I didn't have that sort of tool, so I just sanded like heck with wet black XX fine sandpaper and gessoed, and sanded and gessoed, and so on.  It was still pretty bumpy when I started painting it.  It was not going to get any smoother on my watch.

That's the beauty of being an Outsider primitive naive crafter or whatever the heck anybody wants to call me.  It's finished when it feels like it to me.

While working with the Celluclay, I ran into another problem, besides overall ugliness of the project so far.  I'd envisioned the lizard crawling up the lattice one way, but that way was making the whole thing unbalanced.  So I had to cut the chameleon off the ladder and rewire him to the other side.  Consequently the sculpture turned out to be less compact than I'd figured, and it also needed a base, which I made from a piece of a styrofoam cooler, once Sonja was done using it.

I listened when my friend Lise said, "It's all in the tail."

Next up was some base coat paint, a pistachio mint green followed by extreme glitter green for the chameleon, saffron yellow for the ladders, and pine green for the base. 

Then the really fun part began.  I found that the sculpture had three main planes and I used these as the bases of where to put the mandalas.  I used the same colors and patterns in all of the mandalas, so that the whole sculpture--both chameleon figure and the ladder and base that he was supposedly trying to match--all had a uniform look.  A mixed-up, patchwork, crazy but uniform look. 

It was very fun to do this piece, and I'm glad to say that it did finally turn out much as I had hoped when I first saw it in my mind's eye.  There were numerous times I was ready to chuck it in the dumpster, but then I would remember that there was a lot to be learned from this project, even if it turned out yuckier than lizard poop.  

On another topic, which I brought up in my last blog post, I did get on the Arizona state insurance plan, and I am very happy about this.  I still need to stay put for a few weeks or maybe a month while paperwork gets handled, but I'll be seeing a new primary care doctor soon and hopefully getting referred to an orthopedic for knee care.  

I'm still enjoying staying at Hickiwan Trails RV Park, and it's a good thing we're hooked up to electricity, because we're having some 100-plus degree days right now.  The early mornings and late evenings are very pleasant and cool, though, and I spend them outside as much as possible.  We get some fun neighbors sometimes.    


  1. This is such a timely post, I was wondering to myself how much fun it would be to sculpt in papier mache but could not remember the glue to use! THANKS for the great story of your wondrous creation and the play by play. I am always inspired by your work and its authenticity (art speak code for folk art!) It is a great piece. And thank you to sweet kitty for letting you use the cooler. Best wishes on all your new creations!

    1. Thank you, RuthieBee! It's a perfect time of the year to start doing papier-mache, because you can do more messy stuff outside. I'm hoping when we get settled wherever we will be for the summer, I'll have some little spot of shade for that. I like that word authenticity, because that's pretty much what it is about for me. I like to explore things in my artwork, and that exploration and wonder usually comes out in the piece. Thanks for your kind comments.

    2. REPTILE DYSFUNCTION!!!! Ahahahahaha!

    3. I knew I could count on you to pick up on that, Roxanne.