MU design class creates zoo of colorful animal sculptures

Thursday, July 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Lauren Baker sits next to her artistic creation, a plywood snail sculpture, created during her summer course in 3-D design at MU. Baker's sculpture and those of her classmates are on display on the lawn of the MU Fine Arts Building. "The hardest part was working in wood and using power tools," Baker said. The class's next project is to create functional cardboard chairs.

COLUMBIA — It started with a purple, unicorn-horned giraffe.

The 15-foot plywood sculpture appeared on the north lawn of MU’s Fine Arts Building last week and was soon joined by a whale — its tail and head peeking out of the grass as though it was submerged beneath the lawn.

Then came the octopus and the snail, followed by a travel-stamped moose, a turtle, a camel and a frog. A peacock, an ant and an alien-esque monkey soon completed the menagerie.

The colorful collection is the result of Nancy Brown’s summer Basic 3-D Design class at MU. Brown gave her 11 students the assignment of creating an animal sculpture that was stable, made of wood and featured relief cutouts or negative space for the Fine Arts Building's lawn at the corner of University Avenue and Hitt Street.

Katlyn Sisak, a sophomore art education major, made sample models of a whale, a walrus and a wolf before picking the whale for her project.

“I don’t think anybody did any fish. I think that’s why I chose to do it,” she said. “I wanted a water creature, something from the sea.”

Lauren Baker, a sophomore art major, chose a snail.

“It’s something totally different that you never see (in art),” she said.

Alex Terwelp, a sophomore geology major with a minor in art, wanted to challenge himself and chose a favorite animal from his childhood.

“I’ve loved frogs since I was a little boy,” he said. “It’s not a simple structure with two legs and a body. It has a bit of an angle, and it’s not your average shape.”

Sisak’s primary art experience has been with two-dimensional drawing, so the required 3-D design class was a new experience for her. But the nearly 48 hours she spent working on her whale was too much, she said.

“I was probably there six hours every day for two weeks, not counting Fridays,” Sisak said.

When starting the assignment, students made small-scale cardboard, foam or paper models of three different animals. Once they picked their favorite of the three, students made a larger model out of wood, Sisak said. Students then used their models as a reference to figure out how all the pieces would fit together and how the sculpture would sit up.

“Then we bought wood and got to work,” Sisak said.

This is Brown’s third semester teaching the class. During the regular school year, five sections of the class meet each semester and share two small workshops. Because Brown’s class is the only section meeting this summer, she decided to take advantage of the workshops and assign a large-scale project.

“I wanted to do a breakaway from the previous semesters, and since we’re the only 3-D class this summer, we have tons of space,” she said.

Basic 3-D Design helps two-dimensional artists like painters and “computer people” ease into three dimensions by designing reliefs on a single plane, Brown said. Projects then escalate into true three-dimensional designs.

The class also introduces students to the wood shop and the tools used there, Brown said.

Baker found that woodworking wasn’t very easy.

“It really pushed me. I had no idea I would be doing such hard labor,” she said. “I had never used any power tools before, and I used almost all of them (for this project).”

Terwelp works with metal as a hobby, creating sculptures like ladybugs and bees from old shovels and other objects. Wood is much less forgiving than metal, he said.

“If you make a mistake with metal, you can just weld another piece or grind it down, and it doesn’t look like anything was ever wrong,” he explained. “With wood, you have to cut a new piece and fit it in with wood-filler, and even then you can sometimes see that there used to be a mistake.”

Terwelp said that the workshop machines can be a little tricky to use and mentioned that a girl even fractured her finger while working with a band saw.

“Sometimes you have to jiggle the tools just right to make them work,” he said.

As part of the assignment, all the sculptures were weatherized, so they can stay out, rain or shine.

“I hope it resists the weather,” Brown said. “I told them to put on three coats of polyurethane (sealant), and hopefully they can put on a couple coats more.”

Although several of Brown’s students are not art majors, she said she is happy with the results of the assignment.

“I thought they were really successful,” Brown said. “I really didn’t show them what to do. I showed them how to make slot connections, and they just did everything themselves.”

Sisak said she hopes the sculptures will entertain people while they walk to class or work.

“It has a good child-like quality to it, and it reminds me of a playground,” Sisak said.

Brown said the sculptures will remain on display for as long as the students will let her keep them there.

“I’ll take them if they don’t want them,” Brown said. “I’ll put them in my backyard.”

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