Artist's Studio—Holly Crocker Garcia

Swan Lake is one of my favorite ballets with its breathtaking costumes and lush, romantic Tchaikovsky score. This gorgeous photo by Kevin Day of the UK portrays a graceful swan lifting off the water to stretch her wings. I will be portraying the Swan Queen from this classic ballet as she spreads her wings to take flight off the misty lake. My model is Petra Conti, a beautiful Italian ballerina from La Scala Ballet in Italy who is now a principal dancer with Boston Ballet. To me, she embodies the strength, fragility, and wild, untamed beauty of a true Swan Queen.

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Step 1

These are the materials I use when sculpting my pieces: aluminum wire for the main armature, copper wire for the fingers, and Permoplast oil-based plastiline for the body. I work from photographs taken of Petra at a professional photographer’s studio. We shot the pose from eight different angles, Petra turning while the photographer remained stationary. This was especially tricky because she was on pointe. I measured Petra’s proportions very carefully from joint to joint and then scaled down these measurements for my piece. This particular piece will be 27% life size.

I then cut my wire and marked where the joints fell with thin strips of masking tape marked red. I have never been able to tolerate a support pole attaching into the back of my pieces – it gets in the way terribly – so I made sure I had 2” of armature wire extending beyond the feet to insert into holes in the base.

The armature is so important that I take at least two weeks bending and tweaking it until it is accurate. Once clay goes on it’s very hard to bend an armature wire. I then wrapped thin wire around all armature wires to hold the clay securely.

Step 2

Styrofoam was then added in the bulky areas of the body to lighten the piece and reduce the amount of clay needed. My teacher and mentor, the late Frank Morgan, sculpted life size pieces and spent a great deal of time on his armatures which also contained wood framing for support. He liked to have just ½" inch of clay to be sculpted in surface detail. That took a lot of planning! My pieces are much smaller so I only needed a little styro added to the wire.

Step 3

Here are model and sculptor at our photo shoot. Petra and I are both 5'7", but being on pointe adds 4" to a dancer's height. I absolutely love Petra's arms—they are so long and graceful with just the right amount of muscle definition.

The swan tutu is almost another entity in itself which I must tackle as a whole new sculpture once the body is finished. I have to have a detailed consultation with my foundry to see just how much delicate feather protrusion from the surface can actually be cast.

It will not be possible to have the feathers quite so "uplifted" from the tutu as each feather negative space in the mold would entrap air bubbles in the wax casting. So this detailed costume (including the crown) will have to meet somewhere in the middle between what I would like to portray (feathers floating up from the tutu) and what is possible to portray (plenty of detail in the feathers but not much protrusion from the surface).

Step 4

I started covering the entire piece in a thin layer of clay and then began building it up (there will be a full tutu costume added much later to balance the piece out). Photos help me see the sculpture from another perspective, and I can already see that the head is too big. I'll reduce it today. This is the first time I have revealed one of my pieces at this awkward early stage so I'm way out of my comfort zone but sharing everything for the sake of the process story. Please bear with my trepidation and know that the Ugly Duckling will transform into a Swan.

Proportion is so important at this stage so I continually looked at the piece in silhouette. This let me see the outline of the piece without the distraction of messy, lumpy surfaces.

The last photo is of the piece in her plastic cover. Indoor heat is so drying to clay, even though it's oil-based, so a humidifier is a winter necessity in the studio.

Step 5

I then began working on the head and musculature. Starting at the head, I worked downward in many passes of muscle work, working downward and around – like letting water out of a bathtub. It is important in the beginning of a sculpture to work the piece all over rather than focus in on one particular area. I especially love Petra’s back and long, slender arms which I have to make a tad heavier in the clay model to anticipate shrinkage in the bronze. In the casting process as the wax replica and then the bronze casting cool, a total of 3% shrinkage takes place. Since I have to drill and tap1-1/4” deep into each pointed toe to accept a ¼” stainless steel bolt, I cannot make the toes/ankles as thin as I would like. The eyes are closed at this time but will be open later on. I have added a rudimentary feathered headpiece just to see what it would look like and it instantly places this dancer in the ballet Swan Lake.

In the previous steps I used only my thumbs for adding clay. But then I started to use wire tools for removing clay and shapers to smooth the clay in areas where my fingers are too big. Commercial sculpture tools and loops are fine but my teacher also made several shapers for me out of stainless steel and brass which are sleek with no drag. When I begin work on eyes, nostrils, fingernails I have to use very tiny round ball stylus tools, toothpicks and straight pins – hence the thick magnifying glasses I have to wear for that very close work.

Step 6

I have now started work on my favorite part of any sculpture—the hands. These are to me the most expressive part of a piece, especially in a sculpture of a dancer. The fingers are so terribly fragile that no matter how careful I am, in this outstretched position I have caught them with my swing arm lamps and my own hands and tools and damaged them. I just need to be even more careful. I had to remove the temporary feathered head piece to work on the hair and the low bun. I have also opened her eyes and begun to work on them. She must look up into the sky to take flight from the misty lake.

Step 7

I have now begun work on Petra's beautiful, arched feet and the shoes which support her on pointe. For this I have to lay the piece on its back so that I can work the toes all the way to the end. As the clay is a magnet for dust I have to have all the areas I'm not immediately working on wrapped in plastic. I use actual satin ribbons on my ballet pieces as they are the perfect scale and have a nice texture to them.

Here is a picture of my old pointe shoes from when I studied many years ago. In those days the "box" of the shoe was made of wood but now plastic is often used. The dancer wraps wads of lamb's wool around her toes and stuffs them into the shoe, wrapping the ribbons around her ankle. Since I started dancing way too late and I had arches as flat as boards, I gave up ballet and now dance vicariously through my models.

Time to see if I can figure out how to sculpt feathers. The feathers on Swan Queen's headpiece are close to the head and rather long so I needed to mock up the design first to make sure I wasn't left with half a feather at the top. I also wanted them to look soft and supple, not flat like leaves. When defining the hair-like edges I found I had to actually hold my breath to make my hand steady enough to do this.

Step 8

Here is the piece from direct front and back. This is not my favorite angle as I prefer an eighth turn for better line but from this angle you can see the bodice construction. The bodice is made of many small curved panels sewn together with strips of boning sewn in vertically for support. The final patina on this bronze will be off-white so the gold trim on the bodice will also be white. In these photos I can see that the boxes (toes) of the pointe shoes are too short so I'll elongate them by 1/8".

As with the headpiece, I had to mock up the bodice feather pattern. Then I sculpted each feather individually. Through emailed photos to my foundry, I have learned that this is as much "uplift" as I can create in the clay feathers before running into problems with air bubbles trapped in the wax replica or feather tips breaking off when the rubber mold is carefully removed from the wax. The wax replica is a complete casting of the sculpture and is as fragile as a hollow chocolate bunny. A ceramic shell is created over the wax replica which later on becomes the mold for the molten bronze.

Step 9

Now I have started constructing the tutu skirt. I started with ½" rings of rolled clay pressed tightly around the body at the hips with stiff wires stuck through the clay and deep into the body. Thereafter, I used shorter pieces of wire securing each clay ring to the one before. The wires showing here are just for a general guide so I'll know how far to extend the skirt. I have decided to depict the skirt a little shorter and more uplifted than the one Petra wore during out shoot – as though there were air underneath it. Also, the shorter the tutu, the more the beautiful long leg lines show.

A real tutu skirt is supported by concentric rings of ruffled tulle netting underneath, giving it lift and a look of weightlessness. I carved this softly rounded, triangular shaped wood tool to depict the bunched up, gathered edges of the tulle netting at the edges of the skirt layers.

I never thought I would finish the 80 individually sculpted feathers decorating the tutu skirt but after two weeks they are done. Now I must take some time off to give my eyes a rest after all that close work.

At last this piece has balance with the added tutu skirt and is close to what I envisioned. Since a crown as delicate as I wished cannot be cast in bronze, through trial, error and lots of practice I designed and made one myself out of tiny Swarovski crystals. The crystals are threaded on very fine stainless steel wire and knotted at the top. I wish a still photo could convey the brilliant way these crystals flash when one moves around the piece. The crown will be attached to the bronze at the very end, after the patina is applied. All that remains to sculpt on this piece are the 10 fingernails but the backs of the fingers are difficult to reach so I must cut the arms off now to lay them down and work on these final details. The arms have to be removed anyway for mold-making and casting so I will tackle this traumatic task next week. Then it's off to the foundry for mold-making.

Step 10

Swan Queen is being molded and cast at ART Research foundry in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Separate molds are required for the body and the arms. The feathers on this clay model are so delicate that the silicone rubber had to be carefully painted on by hand, building up layer after layer until it reached the proper thickness. Then plaster was laid up against the rubber as a supportive "mother mold".

Here are foundry workers carefully removing the rubber mold from the main body.

This is the mold lying flat showing the rubber mold liner and the plaster mother mold surrounding it. It's a little hard to see what's what but the form you see is actually a negative cavity. The mold is in four parts: front and back above the tutu, and front and back below the tutu.

Here is the lower half of the arms mold. This is a "block mold" where the rubber is thick enough not to need a plaster mother mold to support it.

Step 11

The mold was then filled with hot wax and unmolded, called "pulling a wax." Rough parting line areas running all around the body had to be smoothed out ("chased") and obliterated detail had to be re-carved in the wax. This piece is extremely difficult to work on because she cannot stand up and therefore workers sometimes have to hold her around the waist while chasing her—which can blur detail.

Here is the wax worker re-carving feather detail in the headpiece. I made a special jig to help her stand up in a relatively upright position for easier chasing.

Working on the pointe shoes. Not shown is how the worker took her out of the jig and turned her completely upside down (I could not watch) into her "Swan Dive" position to work on feet more. Stress level for artist at this point: through the roof.

The wax replica with her arms by her side. Next step is attaching the "sprues"—the spaghetti-like tubes of wax arcing out from all over the piece – which will direct the air bubbles away from the body when the molten bronze is poured into the next mold (the ceramic mold).

Step 12

The wax replica is then dipped into a "slurry" bath, ceramic in liquid form. The first dip is the finest slurry to capture all the intricate surface detail. Then it is dipped in progressively coarser slurries to build up the ceramic mold's thickness. There are usually 10-12 dips with drying in between coats.

When the ceramic mold is dry it is put into a kiln upside down and heated. The wax runs out the bottom (“lost wax process”) and leaves an empty ceramic shell. That shell is then put in a bed of sand and bronze heated to about 2100 degrees is poured into the mold. So dramatic!

Once cooled, the only way to get that ceramic shell off the cast bronze is to bust it off with small hammers, chisels and fine bead blasting (like sand blasting but with fine glass beads which don't remove as much surface detail). The man hours required to remove all this shell are astounding. I have never seen one of my pieces at this "rough cast" stage and believe me, it was a shock! The finished bronze will seem all the more incredible after seeing this photograph. Imagine a bronze finisher spending hours and hours picking the shell out of Swan Queen's feathers and ruffles... almost unbelievable.

Step 13

Here we are spot welding the arms onto the body. I have to wear a heavy leather glove to withstand the heat of the welder while holding the arm in place for tacking.

Now the bronze finisher has to fill in and chase the arm joints. He is a real master craftsman because when the arm joint is finished one cannot tell where that joint is, it is that smooth.

Step 14

This is the special method I have devised for holding Swan Queen straight while I drill holes in both her toes. I made a custom plexi glass box which allows me to walk all around the piece and ensure that it is not tipped in any direction. Then I strapped her in very tightly with tie wraps.

This is hands-down the most stressful part of the entire sculpting process – drilling 1½" straight down into her toes. I can only hope that nothing moved out of alignment as I tipped the mounting box completely upside down with Swan Queen suspended inside.

Tapping screw threads into the newly-drilled holes is a very time consuming process. Go too fast or too hard and the tap breaks off inside the foot. I leave this job entirely to my husband as he has the strength and skill to do this.

My beautiful model, Petra Conti, and her fellow Boston Ballet dancer and husband, Eris Nezha, visited me in my workshop to see the progress of Swan Queen. They were very pleased with her! This was an emotional moment for all of us. I worked very hard on the finishing of the bronze and she looks lovely in bright gold bronze but she will have a soft white patina in the end.

Step 15

The patina process is another dramatic transformation in Swan Queen's appearance. First she was buff-colored clay, then she was dark brown wax, then she was bright polished gold and now she takes on her final color—pale mottled grey. The piece is heated with a propane blow torch to an extremely high temperature and then acid is applied with a brush, stippled on to create a subtly mottled appearance. We are aiming for a "stone" look, rather than a solid, spray-painted white. I love this shot especially for the worker on the right wearing A.R.T. Research's motto "Think Sculpture". I do!

The extreme wide angle of my point-and-shoot camera makes the proportions look wacko in this shot but I needed a "right in the moment" shot. The beige-colored foggy stuff below the worker’s hand is the steam which spews off the piece when the acid is applied. You can kindof see the transformation in this shot from the brassy gold feathers to the ghostly, rather mysterious pale grey swan feathers. So Swan Lake! Once the piece has cooled wax will be applied which will make the color go darker with more grey flecks showing through and more "depth".

Step 16

Here are two photos of Swan Queen with her final patina—the finished product. I wanted to convey the feeling which I experienced when watching my beautiful model dance on stage as Odette in Swan Lake—beauty, mystery, fragility, the softness and elegance of a swan, the subtle colors of a moonlit night. I wanted it to be… haunting… as in a creature not really human and not really bird. I hope you can see this.

Here is the final picture I will post in this journey, "The Birth of a Swan". Here is her beautiful face. It has been a long, complicated process but I am very happy with the result. I have been sculpting since I was 6 years old (in Play Dough) and Swan Queen is my best piece to date. Thank you for following this story of her birth. As my beautiful Italian model would say… Ciao.

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