Making Friends With The Deceased- Being a Part of Family and History

When I’m not sculpting monumental Alice in Wonderland characters, you may often find me making friends with the deceased.  That is what someone told me years ago. It took me aback, but I realized that is what I do.  I create posthumous sculptures, and like the video for Texas Country Reporter states, I get to know my subject very personally and at special times I’m now realizing, I get adopted into a family.  I can feel that now as I work with my new sculpture of Norma Zenteno, an incredible musician who died of breast cancer. The “feeling like family” and becoming friends also extends to those four-legged critters as  part of the Norma project I’m sculpting Kippy, a rescue dog from Barrio Dogs.  I feel the warmth of family in this new commission, and this weekend I felt the warmth of family as I visited an old friend.

I sculpted Patsy over 11 years ago in 2005/2006. Looking back it was an interesting time of transition. I had just built my new studio behind my home, began a regular blog on my website, and was writing a book on the process of sculpting the deceased- still unpublished.

A few years ago I began to receive invitations to a family party on the Patren Ranch. This is a ranch that has been in Patsy’s family for over 100 years.   David, Patsy’s son and his wife Becky live on the property.  David is also a musician so besides visiting the sculpture of Patsy under a large old oak, where “tree Whisky” hangs, there is always great live music.  Though it is a long drive home, I had to stay late, just to hear David play his fiddle and see the family begin to join in on the revelry. If you know me, you know I’m all about the music, either dancing or joining in on harmony, it is one of those other favorite things that I do.  The rolling hills and the old refurbished family home, now a museum complete with the German history of the area leaves me feeling nostalgic and sentimental.  Clusters of Blacked-Eyed Susans crop up in wild areas, and crickets hop over my sneakers on patches of dry mowed lawn as I wonder the fields.   An olive grove was put in by Patsy’s husband, Howard a few years back and I’m tickled to go see the progress. I ramble past the new old “kitchen” building.  Howard tells me they are  building it from reclaimed wood. I hear it will be the “music” building.  I have longed for property for which to grow my business, and for which to grow historical relevance and pass on to the family.  While walking through the main house, a charming young man grabs my hand, shakes it hard, and says, “I’m Cody, Howard’s grandson, I’m so pleased you are here.” His intensity, charm, and warmth radiate from him. I watch later as it spreads on stage with his singing.  I know very few people invited to this gathering save for Howard, Patsy husband and Jennie, Patsy’s best friend who posed for the sculpture. But the family embraces me like I’m a relative who has been away on a journey. With the tight schedule of the Alice Project, I have been away and have not been able to attend a Patren Ranch party in a while. It is good to be back.

Tree whiskey “Patren Ranch.
The story is told that Patsy’s
grandpa had a still. Grandma didn’t believe
in drink, so her grandpa
would hide the whiskey bottles
high up in the trees.
The workers could be found taking
more than a rest under one of these old trees

Howard and I sit by the new pool, as the sun sets over the rolled up bales of hay in the field, me dangling my toes in the water and talking as I watch the family dogs jump in and sit on the pool ledge slightly submerged in the water.  I am sure this was built for them. They bound out, sniff me and Howard, and then chase after their mates clearing the small stone fence like graceful equine jumpers. It is a playful ritual that is repeated several times during our visit and endears me to the family, and property all the more.  I sip a frozen margarita and Howard and I talk about the last ten years and my career. It forces me to reflect on my accomplishments. I’m glad I brought him a copy of my book. I’m extremely thankful for all of the commissions that have brought me to this point in my life.

Later, a  young woman gathers around my prime seat in front of the stage, my space where I have parked my things for the last several hours. She says, “I need a chair like that. It looks so comfortable.” I tell her it is my camping chair and stool. “Do you go camping a lot,” she asks. “I love to,” I say. Her reply makes me laugh, ” Well I am not a camper but I like sitting and that is a fine chair for that.”  Not long after that I pack up my “fine chair” and prepare for my long drive down the back country road to  Houston.

The music, the family, the incredible refreshing property that is Patron and the memories have refreshed me. I think of all the people who have referred to my sculpture and said, “I’m so glad we have Patsy to visit.”  I have become a part of a memory, a part of the history of this family and this property through my work. I’m so very honored. Thank you, Patsy.

Visiting An Old Friend

Patsy sits under an old oak tree
watching those that come down the
road to the family homestead.

Commissions come and they go. When interviewed this week by the Texas Country Reporter they asked if I know the people I have sculpted. “Not in life, ” is my reply. You see, I develop a relationship with the deceased.

That is the way it was with sculpting Patsy. I believe this sculpture was created about nine years ago. I remember this sculpture as pivotal. My old studio was being torn down to make room for those new buildings in the Houston Heights and our new studio was built behind our house. We moved Patsy mid creation.

Visiting an old friend. We became friends after
her death. I need to come back and have a glass
of wine with her under this tree.

It was also pivotal because I was documenting my process of sculpting the deceased and have written a book about it. It is still unpublished. I’d love to publish the book, but it was a bit difficult to find a publisher that would be open to talking about death, art, celebration of life, mixed with some pretty strange occurrences and a sculptors life full of faith and Christian influences.

The other highlight of my trip was dancing with Patsy’s
brother on the land where they once played.

Anyway, recently Patsy’s husband invited me to come to their home deep in the prairie land of Brenham, Texas. My husband and I were invited to a family gathering. I visited Patsy under her oak tree, and danced country western dancing in the fields of Brenham, Texas with her brother. I’m so thankful for families allowing me into their lives, their grief, and their healing. So many people came up to me and thanked me for this sculpture. They did so, all these years later, with tears in their eyes.

As a type of historian, I love that Patsy is set on this land that has
belonged to this family for generations.

Someone also once called me a historian. It is true. I preserve history. Generations from now people will come up to this sculpture and ask, “Who was she?” I see it happen time and time again. I have heard it happen when visiting the Vermont College campus and the sculpture of Richard Hathaway. If I can cause them to pause and ask a question they might just find out about the specialness of the person, and their influences on the lives that they touched.

Of course with Patsy, you don’t have to go far to find the history behind her. Her family has restored and preserved her childhood home, which is a short walk from where she sits on this bench.  Touring this home and learning about he rich German culture was another highlight of my time at the family acres known as Patren.

It was good to visit an old friend. Thank’s to the family for welcoming me into their lives and their love.

Update on Patsy Sculpture

Patsy was approved and completed. I have not yet seen her placed yet. The project became part of a book that I have been writing in conjunction with my studies at Vermont College Union Institute. The book title is “Bringing to Life the Spirit of the Deceased—A Sculptor’s Journey”

I began the book with the question of “How do I capture the spirit of those I have never met?” Many people comment that my work has a tremendous amount of emotion and spirit in it. Is this just because I am highly trained? Or is there something else? I know many sculptors that have the mechanics of the work down, yet their pieces seem hollow-soulless. How do I do it? That is the question I asked myself at the beginning of the book and I have found some incredible answers.

The book is the personal journey of the artist and the documentation of 4 commissions, Patsy being one of the first. I am finishing up the book now and hope to have it to a publisher within the next 6 months. I am indebted to my clients for allowing me to be a part of their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I have learned so much through this journey.

In Loving Memory Of Patsy… Packing Patsy

Making the decision to hold off on sculpting Patsy until I move into the studio has relieved me of quite a bit of pressure. For the first time I could go to the studio and just pack. I sat down at my sculpting table cleaned off all of my tools and packed them into a special box. I wrapped up Patsy dress, collected the many photos and tossed a working smock into the box. Then I marked the outside of the box “Patsy and tools”. Even as I packed it up I thought, “Maybe given a little time and space I can pull these tools and work on the bust while sitting on my new porch.” It will be a welcome reunion between Patsy and I as I open the box and begin to work. I look forward to having her be the first thing created in the new space.

In Loving Memory of Patsy… Holding off on Proceeding

Here is a photo of the progress on the new
building.The new studio without doors.

The new studio is so close to being finished. I wish it were done and I could move in. More than that, I wish I could be working on Patsy in the new studio. I may stop working on Patsy until I move her in. It is not unusual to move a sculpture in the process of sculpting or after finishing the sculpture. Many sculptors do this when it is finished and when they need to send it to the foundry to go into the bronze process; however, I want to get Patsy to the new studio because the feeling of the place is so good, where as the feeling of the other place is getting drearier and drearier by the day. I am not sure if it is the packing or knowing it is going to be torn down. It takes a lot of my energy not to have those “feelings’ transfer to the clay. I think it is best if I hold off on Patsy for the next 3 weeks and work on her when the move is final. It will be so refreshing and hopefully I can get the clay to hold that refreshing feeling. Once again, I am not sure if anyone else feels these things when they look at the clay, but I do.

Yesterday while over at the old studio I walked past the clay of Patsy’s torso. I must talk to Howard about changing the position of her legs. It just does not feel like Patsy. I feel she should have her legs crossed and her head cocked slightly. It seems to be something I have seen in several photos. This pose looks too stiff this way. Changing the pose at this point is a bit of a problem, but not impossible especially if it makes it “feel” better. I’ll have to cut off the clay, dig down to the armature and readjust that before proceeding.

In Loving Memory of Patsy… Torso and Clay

The pose of a clay sculpture

I have begun to put clay on the torso. The arms are just wires, covered with tinfoil and then with clay. The feet and legs are the same. The sculpture does not look like much right now, but it is on the way. I still am concerned about the feet. They just do not feel right, maybe her legs should be crossed?

In Loving Memory of Patsy… The Armature

Patsy starts out as wire a pipe

The sculpture begins with the mundane mechanical process of creating an armature, but I cherish and guard my times alone with the sculpture. I often have an apprentice in the studio. I was glad I had alone time with Patsy even if it was just twisting wire and putting together pipe. This is a portion of the sculpture that people will never see. I begin with my armature, made of plumbing pipe and chicken wire. Usually a sculptures armature is mounted, but because Patsy is sitting on the bench I have opted for doing her “free standing”. Once the bodice was wired together I sprayed spray foam inside of the wire. This is the same foam that is used for insulation. If you plan on doing lots of these type of sculpture I would suggest getting a spray gun. You will need to buy the appropriate spray to go with a gun, and I would also suggest getting a cleaner spray. The foam gun allows you to use just as much as you want and it won’t clog up or the can won’t go bad. The spray will give me mass without much weight. I can cut away what I don’t need, and then I’ll cover the foam with foundry wax. This is for no other reason but to keep the grit of the foam out of my clay. I love smooth clay and can’t stand it when it gets gritty.

Sculptor Bridgette sprays foam into
the armature of the memorial sculpture

Do note that some of the foam may need to expand so give it a day or two to get to its full expansion before putting your clay on the foam. Also, keep a spray water bottle handy. As it will help to cure the foam quicker. Always wear rubber gloves. This stuff is a mess.

The foam cures and is cut
The foam sprayed into the wire “chest.”
The foam is covered with wax.

In Loving Memory of Patsy… “Not Patsy!”

I laid all of the photos out of Jennie, my model and the friend of Patsy, as I began the sculpture of Patsy. Remember I am trying to pay attention to my little nuances of the process of this sculpture and in looking at the photos I kept mumbling the following words in my head, “Not Patsy, not Patsy!” The more I looked and worked with the photos the more I had to say it. It was exhausting. I was wondering if this was the mixed up personalities thing that I mentioned in a previous post. It was as if I did not say this then somehow I would be sculpting Jennie instead of Patsy. I looked closer at the photos and began to question things. I asked Howard about a few of them. And he confirmed that I was right, some of the nuances of Jeanie were not Patsy. I can’t help but wonder, how on earth did I know this?

I wish I could be so bold in some of these feelings as to be able to sit down and tell the family what I think I know, and see how close I am. But all of that is just a little strange and I keep telling myself, “just do the art.”

In Loving Memory of Patsy… The Pose

Jeanie and Patsy were friend. I
have a model.

In all posthumous sculpture, when it is possible I will try and have someone pose in the pose and in the clothes that I am doing the sculpture. It will become my reference material. If you look at Ellie’s sculpture you will see her friend posing for the piece. I asked Patsy’s husband, Howard if he had someone in mind, if not I would take care of it. He suggested Patsy’s friend Jeanie. I was elated that I would have someone who not only was a similar shape and size but actually knew and loved my subject. The photo sitting went very well and the photos were extremely helpful. Later we did change the pose of the right hand. I hope the feet are all right, Most of the photos of Patsy she has her legs crossed.

In Loving Memory of Patsy… Feelings

I have been thinking about all of the posthumous sculpture that I have done over the years, and the feelings that have accompanied each sculpture. They are all different. With Ellie I felt like she was my student, but even though she was only 7 years old I also felt like she was my contemporary in art. Casey, felt evasive, when I sculpted him. Kipper felt formal and cordial. I could go on, each sculpture, each person, leaving a residual of a feeling. With Patsy I feel hmmm, It is hard to explain. I feel very close, like she is a mother figure. The love of children and grandchildren feels so strong.

It is funny. I don’t even know Patsy, but I miss her.