Heather Blume’s Processes and Methods of Figure Sculpture

When looking at a figure sculpture by Heather Blume one is observing several processes at work. 

First, each one has had at its insemination an actual person, a model, a performer, or an acquaintance, hired by the hour, to pose for the work. Blume looks not only to incorporate verisimilitude, but also the essence of the model’s personality. Initially she and the model meet briefly to work out the pose, then the actual modeling sessions begin for a period of two to three times , each taking 2.5  hours.

Next, each sculpture is modeled in water based clay. Depending on the pose, and or the decision to later make a plaster press mold of the work, an armature ( means of support ) for the wet clay is usually necessary. One method Blume employs uses a variety of supports for the clay from the exterior, (dowels, bamboo skewers, other bits of clay) with a base board beneath. These are easily removed as the clay dries and firms up. Another method incorporates flexible aluminum wire. This is twisted and formed into the pose. The wire is attached to another vertical metal support which is secured to a base board. Blume models the wet clay over the armature. In this case she either

  1. cuts the finished sculpture off the wire using a length of filament wire and reassembles it (see * next paragraph) or  

  2. a plaster press mold of the finished work is made.

slip apply.jpg

If a mold of the work is made then it is possible to create multiples of the original. Usually there  two molds having a separate front and a back for each figure made.  One mold contains the impression of the head and torso, the other the arms and legs.  Blume acquired her method of press molding by researching the architectural terra cotta methods used in the U.S. during the 19th C. Wet clay is carefully pressed into each mold section, *the edges of the clay are roughed up and slip (diluted clay) is applied to them. The molds parts are then carefully joined together to reform the complete figure sculpture. This time it is hollow.

Plaster absorbs moisture resulting in the clay sculpture to shrink slightly thereby releasing it from the mold. Because the clay is still in a workable state, the poses can be adjusted (Blume’s background in artistic anatomy allows for confident play ). Holes are poked into the sculpture to allow for venting steam and gases during firing. At this point, no one wants to have a blown up sculpture. In addition, when released each head is featureless. Even though these plaster molds allow for multiples, each face is uniquely sculpted, each pose is hand pressed from the mold ,not cast, and each one has its own quality of character.

 The following stage involves resolving aesthetic and minute details such as direction of the gaze, perfecting hand gestures or defining attire. This takes just about as much if not more time as sculpting from the model. If other media are to be added after firing such as fiber or trapeze elements, small gauge nichrome wires are inserted into the sculpture. This serves as a secure means of attachment .The wire is specially suited for tolerating high temperatures.  


Now the figure sculpture is ready for firing in an electric kiln, what is known in the ceramics, an earthenware, or in the case of sculpture, a terra cotta (baked earth) state. Blume fires her pieces to cone 04 (1850 F) because there is less shrinkage and warping than at the higher temperatures of stoneware and because the surface is  more receptive to her choice of  treatment.

 Rather than using a ceramic glaze, Blume has devised a satisfactory method of painting her figures using casein paint. This milk based paint allows for a more nuanced patina- like effect. The sculpture is then sealed with a microcrystalline wax and buffed with a soft cloth resulting in a softly translucent effect.The finished painted and waxed sculpture stabilizes permanently in three months, much the way an oil painting does. Subsequently she attaches mixed medium decorative elements some of which include natural or indigenous fibers.

Finally, every sculpture has to be displayed and therefore requires the addition of a base or hanging device. And in a perfect world each figure sculpture will live in advantageous lighting conditions. The value of good lighting on a sculpture can never be underestimated.

This essay has been composed for those who want to better understand the terra cotta sculpture process. As much as Blume tries to determine which method she will employ, in the end it is the figure in the sculpture that determines its conclusion.