Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Au Contraire" - A Commission - June and July, 2014

I know it's been a while since I posted anything new. (Can you tell I've been busy?)

Here's a commissioned piece I did a while back. The client, who is in the wine business, saw my piece "Steadfast" at Red Truck Gallery in New Orleans, and thought a different version would be a perfect way to depict one of his wine labels. The label has an elephant and a mouse on a see-saw, and the wine is called "Au Contraire".

When thinking about how to approach this piece, I thought it might be overly complicated to get the elephant and mouse to move, they way the figures do on "Steadfast". But then I realized the movement wasn't essential to the overall piece, because the motion would be so slight. I also realized the real challenge with this piece was to make the elephant as light as possible. It had to be in scale with the label, but not so heavy that it would make it impossible for a motor to move it. I pondered using different materials - paper mache, fiberglas and resin, and others. Since I am a wood person, I decide to take the challenge, and carve it out of a block of wood. The hollowing out of the inside would be labor-intensive and testing at times, but it worked out well.

I will show you the in-progress photos first, then the finished piece.........

Here's the label the piece was based on. I even incorporated the colors in the final piece.

I glued up this huge, and heavy, chunk of basswood to begin with. It weighed about 18 lbs. at this stage.

Roughing it out. The block just barely fit in my bandsaw - it's approximately 6" x 13" x 15"

Taking off chunks at a time.....

Into carving - with chisels and gouges. All done by hand. BTW - I don't use power carvers - for me, too much dust and not enough control. And there's nothing more satisfying than a sharp chisel cutting through a piece of wood.

Almost there. (Not bad for a self-taught carver.)
Next is cutting it in half and hollowing it out; I've gotta get the weight down. 

 I cut it in half so I could carve out the inside. I began with various drills, which was a little slow, but it worked.

After using the drills to get rid of the wood,  I bought this rotary rasp and it really helped remove the wood. I couldn't carve it out by hand because of the way the grain was running - straight up and down. I think this was the only way to do it. Also I had to be careful not to cut through to the other side. I had a few 'incidents' but I easily glued small chunks into the holes - and kept going.

The carved elephant (solid) weighed in at about 9 lbs. After carving out the inside it was down to about 2.5 lbs. I will add a weight to the underside of the teeter-totter to compensate for the weight difference.

To glue the elephant back together, I added 4 blocks to align the two halves. They also help to hold it together.

Finished elephant. I added the ears, tusks, eyes, tail, and finished the trunk - all basswood; saturated with thin CA glue for added strength.

The pivot for the teeter-totter. The rod that moves the plank comes up through the center, and two hinges are inserted on either side. Again, this is basswood.

Here I'm testing the weight and balance - and the position of the figures on the plank.

After carving the mouse, I added the tail; made from a tapered brass rod and covered with sawdust to add texture. His eyes were glued on.

Here is the pocket I carved, into which I will add that 2.75 lbs lead weight seen on top. This will balance out the elephant - which will make things easier on the motor that moves it.

In-progress. Right before I painted the final three pieces. Here I'm testing out the movement and the clearances - again. As you can see, I covered the top of the base with tin, attached many small nails.

I projected the logo and painted it onto the base. I felt like an old-timey sign painter, and I think it came out great.

Done painting and aging. I like how the texture from all the files and rasps stand in for the texture of the skin.

Love this color and texture - it's just what I was hoping for.

And I think the mouse came out pretty swell too.

The final image. The piece measures 40" x 25" x 8".

The elephant - I'm very happy the way he came out. I had my doubts in the beginning, but I even impressed myself with the final results.

The mouse. (He's a bit out of scale to the elephant but, again, I was going by the artwork on the label.) 

 I thought this shot was nice - the meek little mouse vs. the behemoth pachyderm.

The pivot point. (Though after it was all painted and aged, I realized I sort of flipped the colors.) I still love it.

A quick movie.... watch full screen. 

Here's something interesting -----> while rough cutting the elephant, I found this lead bullet in the wood. This is the first time I've found one.  I've heard stories of golden bullets found in wood from South America..... still looking for one of those.

 Thanks for looking!



  1. Are you kidding me?? Tom, your work is so brilliant. So well executed and well done in every aspect from concept to finish. I love getting to see these process posts and will always remain your fan.

  2. Thanks for your nice note Shelly. I do like to share and wish more artists did it.

  3. Fantastic job! It's so great when it all comes together, right?
    Now, hope my paper mache elephant comes out with similar colors like yours'.