The Making of JWU Wildcat
“Wildcat” sculpture was commissioned by Johnson & Wales University for their 100th anniversary. JWU successfully raised all funds through donations.
The Johnson & Wales Wildcat Art Committee, led by Roger Mandle, shortlisted two artists from a list of 35 before requesting Mike present in Providence. Mike believes that the quality of a presentation and all supporting materials should be as professional as the product he is selling and strives to carry this professionalism through the entire project. His experience and business background offers him the ability to instill confidence and security in his clients. After winning and negotiating the terms of the contract, Mike began the design phase of the project.
Mike initiated the JWU project by proposing a series of sketches that would act as a basis for a dialogue with the Wildcat Committee. These sketches helped define the composition and design goals of the project. The committee provided a set of qualities they wanted imbued in the wildcat. Mike integrated some of his own design goals and helped to refine the committee’s objectives to ensure a consistent statement.
One of the most important phases of a project is researching the subject. A sculpture can only be as good as the artist’s conceptual and perceptual understanding of the subject. Of course, even this understanding is not sufficient without a receptivity to the essence of a wildcat. Mike spent time around wildcats at the Cat Tales Zoo, taking hundreds of photographs and dozens of measurements to make sure the basis of form was accurate.
Once a general composition had been decided, Mike began digitally sculpting the wildcat using Zbrush with a pressure sensitive Cintiq tablet, which allowed him to digitally sculpt the master.
Part of the digital sculpting stage was still within the design phase. Digitally sculpting afforded Mike the ability to adjust the composition and gesture of the cat through a continued dialogue with the Wildcat Committee before they signed off the composition.
In general it is important to Mike that a composition be fluid, and for this project it was also important to create an iconic image. This means that the sculpture has to have strong silhouette from various angles. It is a challenge to create a dynamic pose that still retains a sense of stillness, possesses an iconic quality and is pleasing to view from all sides.
My goal with each new piece is to ensure all design lines and details are organic curves and I strive to avoid any linearity or rigidity in the pose or accents.
Once a composition had be finalized, Mike began to refine the musculature. As with other stages of the design process, Mike made certain choices that deviate from photo realism to support an overall statement. In some sense, he is attempting to create what a viewer wants to see in their minds eye, so it is a combination of realism and idealism guided by a sense of form and design.
Digital sculpting has its benefits, but it also has its limitations. It allows for greater design flexibility. However, some things can only be done by hand and one of those is the fine finish work. It is sometimes challenging to get an accurate view of a piece since the digital lighting and detail depth is artificial.
Once completed with the digital master, Mike sent the file to an enlargement company. Now the digital information is translated into reality through the use of a CNC machine which carves the model out of foam using a spinning bit with multiple axes of freedom.
The head was first CNC’d out of foam, then hot clay was spread over the foam. Once cooled, the clay was machined to give Mike a base for sculpting. The rest of the cat was simply tooled in foam and coated in clay, ready for hand sculpting.
There are also benefits and limitations to CNC machining. Much of the fine detail in the digital master is lost in the CNC phase. But generally speaking, this process allows an accurate reproduction of the general form of the digital model. Typically in modern day enlargement, a maquette is sculpted in clay, then scanned and enlarged.
In this project, it was necessary to refine the digital model more than necessary. Sufficient funds had not yet been appropriated to the project and the Digital Master needed to be compelling enough to move the project forward, even if much of the detail would be lost in the CNC phase
Mike spent over a month sculpting the wildcat’s head in Spokane. He believes that the head, and more specifically, the eyes, are the most important aspect of an animal. Not only is the head the center of attention, but it also offers the greatest opportunity for expression and supporting the goals of the monument.
“Completing the wildcat head first gave me a sense of excitement that carried through the rest of the piece and also set the stage for the character of the remaining detail work.”
When Mike is working, he has three monitors in front of him plastered with composited images, making sure he is always near his subject.
Once completed with the head, Mike worked in Cascade Locks to finish the sculpture, where it was molded by Heather Soderberg. Heather, a very skilled artist, also assisted Mike in finishing the hair detail on the body under a very strict timeline.
Unfortunately, most of the muscle tone and detail was lost in the CNC process, requiring Mike to completely re-sculpt the secondary and tertiary form. Coupled with a CNC delay, this equated to three months working 7 days a week to meet the deadline.
Granite Rock Assembly
Granite has many layered levels of organic structure and texture that is nearly impossible to sculpt. Rocks push the limits of unpredictable order, despite each class of rock having a character and order. For this reason, Mike chose to arrange and mold actual granite boulders, which is not as straightforward as it might seem.
The first step was to choose the kind of rock that would work well with the Wildcat, have interesting texture, and stack in a believable way. Mike’s first choice of rock proved not to meet his goals. On the second day, Mike worked with Rodney from Sunrise Ridge Rock to select boulders that would likely fit together and give the illusion of a precipice. Sometimes a little foresight and a lot of luck is in your favor. It did not take long to arrange 4 rocks that almost magically fit together and had the relative heights that would act as foot beds for the Wildcat.
``I would not want to try to reproduce this again``.
After successfully arranging the the boulders outdoors in the forgiving dirt, they then had to re-arrange the boulders inside a cement floored shop, where it would be molded. With some skill, effort and once again luck, they were able to reproduce the arrangement on the unforgiving cement. John Harris, owner of Sunrise Ridgerock made this possible – he could not have been more accommodating.
The first step in mold making is cutting up a sculpture or partitioning it into smaller pieces. The sculpture is dissected into smaller panels that can later be manageably cast.
The next step is brushing on multiple thin coats of a silicon or urethane rubber. Once cured this is backed with a rigid outer “mother” mold which retains the shape of the panel. The outer mold can be made from plaster, but can also be made of fiberglass or other materials.
Most molds are made of at least two pieces, and a shim with keys is placed between the parts during construction so that the mold can be put back together accurately. If there are long, thin pieces extending out of the model, they are often cut off of the original and molded separately. Sometimes many molds are needed to recreate the original model, especially for large models. “Wildcat” was composed of over 160 panel sections, or individual molds.
In this project, the rock mold proved to be the most unforgiving mold for Heather and her husband Rich.
Once the mold is finished, molten wax is poured into it and swished around until an even coating, usually about 1⁄8 inch thick, covers the inner surface of the mold. This is repeated until the desired thickness is reached (~3/16-5/8). The temperature of the wax is one of several critical factors to getting good wax patterns that are not filled with pinholes.
Another method is to fill the entire mold with molten wax and let it cool until a desired thickness has set on the surface of the mold. After this, the rest of the wax is poured out again, the mold is turned upside down and the wax layer is left to cool and harden. With this method it is more difficult to control the overall thickness of the wax layer.
Removal of wax.
This hollow wax copy of the original model is removed from the mold. The model-maker may reuse the mold to make multiple copies, limited only by the durability of the mold.
Each hollow wax copy, or panel in the case of a monument, is then “chased”: a heated metal tool is used to rub out the marks that show the parting line or flashing where the pieces of the mold came together. Each stage in the casting process is important to ensure good fidelity to the master and chasing is no exception. The wax is dressed to hide any imperfections. The wax now looks like the finished piece. Wax pieces that were molded separately can now be heated and attached; foundries often use registration marks to indicate exactly where they go.
The wax copy is sprued with a treelike structure of wax that will eventually provide paths for the molten casting material to flow and for air to escape. The carefully planned spruing usually begins at the top with a wax “cup,” which is attached by wax cylinders to various points on the wax copy. The spruing does not have to be hollow, as it will be melted out later in the process.
A sprued wax copy is dipped into a slurry of silica, then into a sand-like stucco, or dry crystalline silica of a controlled grain size. The slurry and grit combination is called a ceramic shell mold material, although it is not literally made of ceramic. This shell is allowed to dry, and the process is repeated until at least a half-inch coating covers the entire piece. Temperature and humidity are significant factors at this point. The bigger the piece, the thicker the shell needs to be. Only the inside of the cup is not coated, and the cup’s flat top serves as the base upon which the piece stands during this process.
The ceramic shell-coated piece is placed cup-down in a kiln, whose heat hardens the silica coatings into a shell, and the wax melts and runs out. The melted wax can be recovered and reused, although it is often simply burned up. Now all that remains of the original artwork is the negative space formerly occupied by the wax, inside the hardened ceramic shell. The feeder, vent tubes and cup are also now hollow.
The ceramic shell is allowed to cool, then is tested to see if water will flow freely through the feeder and vent tubes. Cracks or leaks can be patched with thick refractory paste. To test the thickness, holes can be drilled into the shell, then patched.
The shell is reheated in the kiln to harden the patches and remove all traces of moisture, then placed cup-upwards into a tub filled with sand. Metal is melted in a crucible in a furnace, then poured carefully into the shell. The shell has to be hot because otherwise the temperature difference would shatter it. The filled shells are then allowed to cool.
The shell is hammered or sand-blasted away, releasing the rough casting. The sprues, which are also faithfully recreated in metal, are cut off, the material to be reused in another casting.
Just as the wax copies were chased, the casting is worked until the telltale signs of the casting process are removed, so that the casting now looks like the original model. Pits left by air bubbles in the casting and the stubs of the spruing are filed down and polished.
The lost wax process has been around for thousands of years, yet still today each stage in the process tends to deviate from the original master. Bogies, pinholes and major panel distortion can arise. Waxes can sag, metal can get porous without perfect spruing and gating. Cutting the gating off panels, welding panels together, and asymmetrical cooling distorts the shape of each panel in an unpredictable way. As a piece is being welded together the heating and cooling causes tension that actually distorts neighboring panels and the overall shape.
The metal toolers/welders have the challenging job of fixing these sometimes unavoidable limitations of casting. Imagine putting together a 160 piece 3d puzzle where all the pieces are slightly distorted in unpredictable ways and there is no perfect finished model to view as a reference.
Engineering & Internal Structure
The sculpture acts as a bronze skin 3/8″ thick around an internal structure composed of 2″ stainless steel rods and 2″ l-bar. Transporting the cat and insuring the flatness of the bottom of the rock necessitated most of the internal structure. Mike 3d modeled the internal structure based on the engineering drawings to create foundry friendly diagrams.
Sandblasting & 2%
The next step, just before patina, is sandblasting the chased casting. This evens up the polish and tooling and gives a good base for patina. Sandblasting also reveals imperfections in the casting and the metal chasing. This stage is also called the 2% stage, and is when Mike looks over the casting and identifies necessary fixes and improvements to the chasing. Sandblasting and retooling may take place several times and even extend into the patina phase.
The patina, or coloration, offers another opportunity to give life to the sculpture. There are a wide range of chemicals and dyes available to the contemporary patina artist. Mike chose to go with a rubbed-out traditional Birchwood Casey patina. This patina places a larger emphasis on form, texture and detail. The act of rubbing back the patina accentuates these qualities. A more contemporary patina can add a wider palette of colors, but tends to camouflage the form and details.
The first step in this patina is applying Birchwood Casey with a spray bottle or sponge. This chemical rapidly accelerates oxidation. Next, the monument is washed with water to neutralize the reaction. The monument is then covered in a rust like velvety oxidation. This oxidation is removed with brass brushes or Scotch Brite pads. The brass brushes remove the oxidation, but tend to add a polished appearance. The Scotch Brite pads will slowly rub off the Birchwood, allowing the artist to get gradation and accentuate form and detail as all the high points are abraded back. This is almost a reverse process or how one might paint.
Sometimes the patina shows defects that went unnoticed after sandblasting. If the issue is great enough a spot fix (metal tooling and possibly re-welding), re-sandblasting and re-patina is required. This feels like a set back, but is sometimes necessary, especially on a first casting in the edition.
Following the finalization of the rubout, heat is applied with a torch to add a subtle red value and another mid-tone to the rub-outs. Once cool, the bronze is coated in a clear coat. Mike chose a high end nano-technology industrial coating (SEI CPT-400) with high slip and anti-corrosion properties which was sprayed on with a top of the line HVLP spray gun.
Mike worked for three days with Slim, Jill and his father Chester Fields perfecting the patina.
The granite plynth/pedestal is one piece of granite weighing in at 22 tons. This was the largest single piece of granite that Kenneth Castellucci & Associates, Inc has ever quarried and installed. The granite was sandblast etched with “The Wildcat Way”.
Delivery & Installation
“Wildcat” was transported on a step down trailer from Joseph, Oregon to Providence, Rhode Island. Once on site, Ken and David Castellucci’s crew installed the sculpture using over a 100 ton crane. The monument sleeved over a 2″ solid stainless steel rod that was epoxied into the granite and cement foundation. Installation went well and took a little over an hour.
Contractors and Suppliers
Special thanks to:
Soderberg Gallery and Studio | Moldmaker & clay assistance – Heather & Rich Soderberg
Sunrise Ridge Rock Spokane | Granite Boulders – Rodney, Shane & John Harris
Inland Northwest Engineering | Engineering – Brett C. Danielson, P. E.
Kenneth Castellucci & Associates, Inc | 22 ton Granite Slab – David Castellucci
Bay Crane | 110 ton crane
White Brokerage Inc Trucking | Transportation
Materials and Equipment
Wacom Cintiq 24″ (and 3 other large monitors)