Suzanne Forbes, an expat New Yorker in Berlin. Made possible by the generous support of her Patrons. https://www.patreon.com/SuzanneForbes. Former DC Penciller for Star Trek, former courtroom artist, painting portraits and teaching drawing.
It was my beloved Friend-Muse-Patron Monique Motil who came up with the idea of “Make-Cation”.
Monique has always been my inspiration for mixed media and assemblage art, and I learned so much about how to trust my creative impulses around materials watching her work evolve over the years. I did my first Make-Cation in Fall 2017, and for eight days in March I did it again! It was a glorious time of renewal, full of energizing fiddling, fooling, fussing and gluing! Nothing makes me happy like taking a hacksaw to a plastic toyl!
It may surprise some people but drawing and painting isn’t “fun” for me. It’s hard work where I put my whole identity on the line every time and demand the best I can possibly do from myself. Like going to the gym, it feels great in the sense of being healthy, rewarding and good for me.
Plus there is a huge added bonus in that it gives happiness to the people I document and helps to share their stories with the world. So it is deeply meaningful and feels like service, which I love.
However it’s hard work, and I do it pretty much all the time, so I took a week to do the art that feels like play – making stuff!
Touching and handling beautiful materials like velvet leaves, gold wire and garnet beads makes me feel nourished and exhilarated.
I started on Day One with these cheap pot metal crowns and the heaps of metal leaf charms and stampings I’ve had for years.
I used beads and pearls and resin and glass leaves too, and sewed everything in with different weights of gold wire, then secured it with blobs of E6000.
I learned about using wire to secure decorative elements when I did a Halloween party with the help of a guy who had run commercial haunted houses, in 2001. He said anytime you want something to stay put, wire it in.
I figure people can wear the crowns whenever we finally have our Summer Solstice party.
Then I gave some bugs a bath.
One thing I have learned from action figure customizing folks and Burning Man art folks is that assemblage art lives or dies by its adhesives and primer coat.
The plastic bugs got a nice soak in very hot soapy water to remove any traces of mold release so they would accept paint and glue better.
Once they were completely dry I went bug crazy with the glue gun. I had been wanting to make a gothic rococo gilt frame with horrible insects for many years.
I recently found a €3,99 plastic frame at our local Woolworth’s (we still have those here!) to use as a base. I washed the frame in hot soapy water too, to remove any oils or dirt, and then attached the bugs and some resin flowers with the glue gun.
Once the glue was cooled and set I used my precious Apoxie-Sculpt to unite the bugs with the frame, smoothing their edges into the surface so they look more carved or bas-relief. (You can read more about this here.)
Then I coated the whole thing with Mod Podge, which I’ll explain in the next Make-Cation post, and then I spray-painted it gold! Few things are as gratifying as gold spray paint.
I also cut some pieces of cardstock to fit some of the gaps in the frame, because I needed to reduce the visual detail after adding the bugs – I wanted to it read clearly from a distance. To help that, I also sprayed it from below with a light mist of black spray paint.
I am so pleased with how it came out. Look how nicely the plastic spider sits at the top! I made a little decoupage piece to go in it using die-cut butterflies and some Dresden trim moons I got at Castle In the Air like 20 years ago.
I Mod-Podged them right onto the black cardboard that was the backing of the frame, because I am a deeply lazy person.
I also made some Cernunnos crowns, because you never know when you’ll need those.
I used “reindeer horns” I got on eBay and headbands from Woolworth’s for these, plus some velvet flowers and leaves and stuff that I had hoarded, some from like 1995.
I love how they came out, it is just so satisfying to use up these beautiful old materials and make them into actual things.
Of course I barely made a dent in my supply hoard, but there is world enough, and time, for more creepy assemblage art.
I made two other things, a completely insane little seat for our hallway, and a little fascinator hat, and I will post those soon!
So much love to my Patrons, who support my creating and making, and made this precious window of creative play possible <3 You can see more of my multi-disciplinary mixed media projects here.
Toy customizers, please note that I was able to preserve full shoulder and waist articulation under the miniature clothing. Use of stretch fabrics and gluing the clothes only to strategic, rigid areas of the figure allow her a full range of posability.
Like most of the toy industry, amazing toy company Mezco (who I love and have supported since their beginnings with Silent Screamers in 2000) has a gender problem. They make dolls, and have from the early days: they make Living Dead Dolls.
They also make action figures, and since 2015, they’ve been combining the two with the 1:12 Collective, a 6″ (DOLLHOUSE) scale line of action figures with cloth clothing. (In action figure parlance, dolly clothes are called “cloth applications”.) They started slow, with a Frank Miller Dark Knight Batman (red flag? more likely the chunky design was an easy pilot project).
Then in 2016 they started releasing a cavalcade of fantastic cloth-costumed takes on the heavy hitters of the Marvel and DC universes, plus Classic Trek! These figures are unreal. They are crazy good. For 2017 they announced even more upcoming licenses and figures. Ghostbusters, Space Ghost, Universal Monsters and more. But there was only one planned female figure announced in 2016 – Harley Quinn.
Once she was announced, I thought we’d see a wave of female figures. In 2017, as the success of the Wonder Woman movie exploded on mainstream media, they announced a 1:12 Wonder Woman. But neither Harley Quinn or WW have shipped yet.
And no other female figures have been announced, despite the release of multiple male Classic Trek figures and Marvel heroes AND villains. *cough*Uhura*cough*Storm*. Know who is expected to ship by December? The Red Skull. Who is the Red Skull? He is a fucking Nazi.
That’s right, 1:12 toy collectors will get a NAZI before Wonder Woman.
As a woman, as a comics fan and former DC comics professional, as a serious lifelong toy collector, I gotta say, the optics are bad.
Do better, Mezco. Do better, toy industry.
Meanwhile, guess I gotta make my own action figures with doll clothes “cloth applications”. Been plunging into male-dominated spaces since I became a graffiti writer in 1980, a hardcore comics fan in 1984 and a comics pro in 1993. Been genderqueering the toy space since the 1970s, when me and my best friend Bradley played with my Dawn Dolls. Not gonna stop, despite Nazis.
See my mini projects that use similar techniques here:
I don’t stress about when things get done; the project queue has no hierarchy.
So I went back to this pretty girl when I started to feel sculpty, a couple months ago. I used some epoxy clay to strengthen her limbs and smooth awkward areas.
The internet says it is perfectly safe to rebake polymer clay sculptures that have epoxy clay added to their armatures, and lots of sculptors use a mix of epoxy clay and polymer clay for strength. But I wouldn’t be like me and do it in your home oven. I am an unreliable guide on the subject of chemicals; after all, I put liquid LSD in my eyes when I was 14.
Here you can see Sally (which is the mantis gal’s name) with greyish-white epoxy clay added all over her and areas of plain and green Translucent FIMO still showing.
I had been disappointed and frustrated by the performance of the colored FIMO transparent clays when first baking Sally.
There were a lot of “plaques” and cracking. Probably because I carelessly globbed the clay over the armature without making sure there were no air gaps, and didn’t have an oven thermometer yet, and didn’t let the oven preheat for a solid hour first.
Forgiveness not Permission is my making mode, and I figured try it first, see what happens.
So when I returned to Sally, I first thought I’d just cover her with epoxy clay and paint her and call it a day. But I found I still liked the transparency of her limbs and didn’t want to give up the bright greens of the clay after all. So I painted the epoxy clay areas shades of green to match and did another pass with a mix of colored translucent clays, adding some of my wonderful new Sculpey Premo Opal Accent Clay.
The Sculpey Opal clay is a new product and I ordered some from the US last Fall (I almost lost my mind waiting for it to come, checking the mail every day). I used it for the first time to make this piece and my 2016 Cake Level Patron gifts, here to the right.
It performs so amazingly well. It is very soft, and blends and smears beautifully, and it makes almost watercolor effects over other colors.
It is quite translucent, so it can be mixed with translucent colors to add opal glitter and soften and improve them. I mixed it with some dark green and some lavender for Sally, covered some of her epoxy clay areas and did an initial bake at the temp recommended for the Sculpey Opal clay. The results were amazing.
No plaques, beautiful translucency, just great. So I continued to add a little more volume and opalescence here and there, mixing with both solid colors and FIMO translucent colors. I kept rebaking, for thirty minutes each time, until I was satisfied with both Sally’s shape and her opalescence.
I put her Siam colored Swarovski crystal eyes on before the second to last bake. Once the circles of clay that held them in were baked I used Sculpey Bake and Bond to smooth the eye sockets nicely onto her skull.
I use my fingertip to smear the Bake and Bond; probably unwise. But it’s so goopy and hard to use!
I reinforced a crack in her abdomen with Bake and Bond.
The air trapped in the tinfoil I used to provide bulk with less weight had expanded during baking and caused a crack. I also added balls of clay to the top of her head to hold her antennae, poking the wire in to make a hole but leaving the wires out til later because they hit the roof of the oven! Then I did the last bake, and there she was.
I finally finished this terrifying goat foot candlestick!
I started it in 2015, at our first apartment in Berlin.
I had seen something similar on some luxury housewares or design website, and I was like, I can make that! Plus, it’ll be great sculpting practice!
It’s built on a tall narrow glass caper jar, the lid of the caper jar, tin foil and wooden rings from the craft store.
It was months before our stuff arrived in the shipping container, so I used what was around!
Once I had built the base, I had to cover it with fur.
Each row of fur tufts has to harden before the next one can be sculpted (unless you want to be really careful, and I never manage to be careful enough; I always wind up squishing what I just laboriously sculpted). So eachtime I worked on a project that usedepoxyclay, I would save a little bit at the end to add a row of fur tufts. There are roughly fourteen rows, so that’s a lot of projects!
Once I added the last row of fur last night, I started a new project.
I bought this rococo mirror* made of some weightless extruded foam plastic during my art supply mission on Saturday.
I used a glue gun to quickly affix the bugs and flowers and fill in any space between them and the frame. Then I did a first pass with epoxy clay.
I used it to reinforce the attachment of little legs (it’s very strong) and sculpt new curlicues to incorporate the bug shapes.
When we get a warm sunny day I’ll hit the whole thing with white primer for plastic (which I finally found here, in the excellent DupliColor brand) so I have a uniform surface and can add detail better. Then add paint and Swarovski crystals!
One of the wonderful things about epoxy clay is that you can apply it directly over practically anything, including baked polymer clay, like the mantis.
You can read about the start of the mantis here, and you can read in great detail about my experience beginning to sculpt and learning to use epoxy clay here.
It’s so much easier to work on the hair of my Diana bust now that I’ve had all this experience making fur!
I’ll keep you guys posted on the process of all these projects, unless I get derailed by some new obsession and they go back in the queue!
While I was painting the goat foot with many layers of metallic paints, I mixed up too much blackened gold-umber-bronze.
When the only tool you have is a brush full of bronze paint, everything looks like it needs to be painted bronze. I changed the zombie hand I resculpted at Halloween from glitter black to bronze and FINALLY dry-brushed highlights onto the ram’s horn mirror I bought for our hallway before we left the US. Always be finishing!
*You can see the reflection of one of Daria’s drawings in the mirror, from one of our earliest art trades.
I had a crazy rare week of being virtually fatigue-free and on a “normal person” sleep schedule, where I woke up between 7 and 9 and went to bed around 10 to midnight.
The last period I can remember like that was around 2008. I took mad advantage of the good light and the long days, and worked on the dolls ten or twelve hours a day.
I approached the project with a kind of relaxed enforced serendipity- I would just reach in the doll making drawer and grab and handful of materials. Then I’d see what I could make with the bits of legs, arms, fur and plastic bugs I’d grabbed. It was like putting together puzzles.
Bricoleurs are machines that make junk into art.
There is a powerful mental image for me when I work on stuff like this. I always think of the Boxmaker in Count Zero, the AI fragments/loa that uses Tessier-Ashpool relicts to make Cornell boxes. The idea of being a machine that recycles scraps and pieces of artifacts into new artifacts is so beautiful and restorative to me.
I’ve been cutting up my dolls and making them over my whole life.
My best friend Victoria and I used to chop off their hair, paint them with Mercurochrome for fake blood, and drop them out the window of her parents’ loft on Great Jones St.
They would land on the hoods of the cars in the parking lot below, tiny sacrifices.
I used to use the fireplace tongs to hold my Flatsie dolls in the wood stove at our cabin in the Adirondacks, revealing their wire armatures.
I never minded the smell of burning plastic; I was too fascinated by the structure being revealed and the way the arms melted off.
Dolls are intrinsically powerful; they come pre-loaded with content.
Add pink housewife dresses and the horns of a genderbent Herne, and you have a semiotic shorthand that anyone can parse. They are little totems, little ration packs. I lavished them with the tiniest Swarovski crystals, leftover fur from one of Daria’s dolls, velvet ribbon, and microbeads, because pretty and scary are my favorite mix.
Like many artists I know, I’ve been deeply inspired by the idea of being called a “nasty woman”.
I love that idea, I love the entire notion of reclaiming my nastiness and ugliness and witchiness and harpiness and shrillness and bitey-rage-creature-ness.
I am completely ready to embrace my monsterhood and the monsterwoman-ness of all the monster people of all genders and origins and being-hoods. Be maenads, and rage!
Anyone who has a problem with the furious girl-child inside me who cut the heads off dolls can take it up with my glorious, furious, terrifying grown-ass woman monster-self. Lotsa luck, as we say where I come from.
I had sculpting classes in art school; I submitted to them ungraciously.
I considered sculpting an unnecessary detour, an obstacle to my mission of learning to draw as well as possible, as fast as possible, as soon as possible. I wasn’t comfortable with the visceral, touchy-feely quality of sculpting either; as a young artist I was rigid and frightened of anything where my success or failure couldn’t be quickly quantified.
I was especially frightened by anything abstract. In one class we used blocks of soapstone and chiseling tools, and I watched in awe as a classmate confidently set into her piece. “How do you know where to carve?” I asked her. “I just look at the natural rock, and let it tell me what forms want to emerge.” I found that terrifying. I did not want to hear about anything “emerging”. I wanted to draw the X-Men.
I wasted those opportunities, but luckily, sometimes both ars and vita are longa.
I got interested in sculpting in 2000 or so, after making a lot of fancy cakes with gold-leafed marzipan dragons and fondant-and-royal icing Fabergé eggs. I was “retired” as an artist at the time, not drawing or painting, just compulsively making things.
I was reading about customizing action figures on these clunky yahoo forums, and I heard about epoxy clay. Epoxy clay sounded great: a strong self-hardening clay that would adhere to nearly anything and hold fine detail with no shrinkage, and you could buy it at TAP in El Cerrito. I bought some, but then I got so consumed with my dollhouse build I left it in the craft cabinet for a long time.
At some point I started making things (link NSFW) for my dollhouse in polymer clay.
Polymer clay has a slightly, faintly greasy feel in the hand which I can tolerate, but don’t love, and it has other flaws. You have to bake it, and if you want to incorporate things that would melt in the oven in your sculpt, you’re screwed. The cured clay isn’t a neutral surface- you can paint it with acrylics, but only some varnishes, adhesives and primers adhere to it.
So eventually I did try the epoxy clay. It’s a two-part putty that you knead together- equal size balls of resin and hardener- which firms up gradually over an hour or so. It’s hard to the touch in a day and fully cured in a week or two. It comes in various basic colors; I started with the “natural” or grey. I found it okay to the touch, and I loved the self-hardening property, but there was a granular quality to the handling and finish I disliked. I gave my stash of it to the sculptor Aimee Baldwin, who uses it on the beaks and feet of her incredible “vegan taxidermy” birds, and moved on to other projects.
Art, like life, is made of second chances, even when it doesn’t feel that way.*
There’s always another opportunity to fall in love. And since I am a materials geek as an artist much more than a tools or techniques geek, I kept reading about resins, adhesives and clays. When I started my really just fully insane Narnia Jadis-and-her-sleigh aka Snow Queen project in 2013, I realized epoxy clay was the perfect thing to join together disparate materials. (below, first preview ever published of the reindeer and sledge!)
The sledge is made of 3 plastic Christmas ornament sleighs, pvc ornament sleigh pieces, polystyrene sheets and strips, clear polythene sheet, crazy glue and balsa wood, all stuck together with epoxy clay, polished and sanded smooth. (And painted with Tamiya pearl and flake model car paints, another rabbit hole of materials I went down!) It’s decorated with hundreds of the very, very tiniest Swarovski crystals, some smaller than the head of a pin, and tiny, tiny flocked and glittered snowflake decals meant for nail art.
The reindeer is made of a cellulose acetate reindeer from the ’50s, legs sawed off and replaced with new sculpts, and head, body and neck heavily re-sculpted. This kind of Frankensteining is a classic action figure customizing technique; the materials and techniques for creating the miniature harness come from the model horse customizing community, and the handling of the mohair mane from the dollmaking world. I used a Japanese product called Sakura 3D Crystal Lacquer, which is used by Lolis and Harajuki girls to adhere bling to their phones, aka “decoden”, to get a clear dome over its eyes and a gloss of mucus in its nostrils. The flocking on its ears is nail artist’s flock- much cheaper than the art store!
During this process I learned the secret of working with epoxy clay: water.
Epoxy clay is exactly like natural clay in the sense that it’s water soluble; water instantly smooths and softens it. As long as you keep a cup of water (clearly labelled DO NOT DRINK) next to your work surface, all those issues with the granularity of the material disappear. The clay smoothes and holds detail exquisitely. It sticks to itself and to pretty much anything else.
Suddenly, I was in love with sculpting. It’s all about the right material.
So this summer I decided to make some freehand original epoxy clay sculpts. The goat-foot candlestick is something I’m making not because I wanted to make it, but because I want to have it. It’s built on an armature of tinfoil and a glass caper jar, plus some wood rings.
The figure of Diana will be a horned, armored bust, holding a bow, attached to an iron candlestick (which I got at TK Maxx); she is built on an armature of wire and tinfoil. The idea is her horns will cast shadows as the candle flame flickers.
I was wrong, in college. Sculpting is priceless to the draughtsman.
Just working on the Diana figure for a few months I’ve learned so, so much about representing the figure. So much about planes and mass and the way the figure occupies space.
Speaking of mass, the self-adhesion properties of epoxy clay come in handy as I just keep packing muscle mass onto her shoulders. Because that’s what I love to see in women. (With the [still unfinished, beautiful and evil] Snow Queen, I used a tiny fairy figure as her base, and I kept adding booty to her booty.) Seriously, I wrote a paper in college about the differences between the classically sculpted face and modern beauty standards, and yet making this piece has given me far more understanding.
The other thing about sculpting that’s wonderful for me is that it’s SLOW. For a person who draws and paints as fast as I do, making work that takes deep patience is wonderfully relaxing. There’s something heavenly about just taking my time.
Epoxy clay, though delicious to work with, also has drawbacks.
It’s very, very expensive to get over here, so I use tinfoil to create as much of the bulk of the sculpt as possible. You can also sub in polymer clay for some parts of your sculpt- people on the internet say it’s perfectly safe to bake cured epoxy clay, so of course I did. But I didn’t like the contrast of the materials.
When the plumbers came to fix our sink they used epoxy clay to seal the tiles back in; I should have asked them where they get it, but they don’t speak a word of English and insist on asking their Siri to tell me everything, which drives me nuts.
And it has potential as an allergen, possibly one with a lifetime body burden tipping point.
I had that experience with black hair dye- happily gothing it for years, then one day I left it on too long, and then every time I tried from then it got worse. I gave up on black hair the day I had to pull my car over because lymph fluid was dripping from my broken scalp into my eyes. Oy, what an idiot. Not doing that again. If I start to have a reaction to epoxy clay I’ll give it up.
Meanwhile, I find doing the mixing together of the two elements with gloves on seems to reduce its adhesion to my hands while actually sculpting. Some people use barrier creams to protect their hands. I use silicon sculpting tools, because if you use metal they just become lumps of epoxy clay! During the process of these two pieces I switched from “natural” clay to “White”, which is actually still grey.
I found the white clay to be much finer textured, better for holding fine detail and not faintly translucent the way the natural clay is. You can see traces of the natural clay around Diana’s nose. With the Snow Queen, I periodically sprayed her with Krylon Fusion to get an allover finish; this let me check the symmetry and shape of the sculpt more easily, and the clay just stuck right on over it. But this is the Land of No Krylon. I may paint her with white artist’s acrylic instead, before I do more work on her. I want to get some Rio Rondo teeny tiny carbide files, too, to drill out her nostrils.
I like Apoxie Sculpt white better than Magic-Sculpt, which was the first epoxy clay I tried, although I like the Magic-Sculpt better than the natural Apoxie. Magic-Sculpt has no greasy feel at all, which I appreciate; the white Apoxie has much less than the natural. They have metallic epoxy clay now too, which I crave but can’t get on Amazon.de. YMMV; there’s miles of debate on these materials out there. I love materials research, so I read a LOT of it, but ultimately the magic of epoxy clay, like natural clay, is that to know it you have to use it.
Sculpting with a material that hardens involves time, and handling, and learning the sweet spots in the hardening process for each technique.
Like baking bread, you just have to practise sculpting- so that’s what I’m doing. It may be a year before these pieces are done; I have time.
“Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile.”