Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Swan Prince

Last year I made an effort to fulfil some long cherished dreams. I had been promising myself for a while that I would make a wooden bird, with wings that flap up and down when you pull its string, and had started to make a working model of a heron out of cardboard. 

Cardboard is one of my favourite mediums, being free and widely available. Those of you who have ever been guilt-tripped into helping with my shadow puppet shows will know how much I love it. It's such a flexible medium. I was once given ten dollars to make a giant trophy to show on stage that same evening; I spent the money on some scissors and gold paper, then wove a life-size Academy Award figurine out of strips cut from cardboard boxes and covered it with little squares of gold paper to make it shiny. Sadly I have no photographic evidence to convince you that it looked spectacular, but it did.

Most of my last minute projects have gone unrecorded: they exist only in my memory. I made a lot of props and costumes but it didn't really occur to me to take photos: what I enjoyed was the sense of achievement. And the thing about last minute work is that there is no time to hang around photographing it. But cardboard has been my friend all these years, no doubt about it. 

So, I made this model to see how the wooden bird would look but then shelved it pending further inspiration. Something about it was not satisfying me and another project quickly took its place. Once something gets shelved there is usually very little chance of it being resurrected, so this bird was lucky that it was all ready to roll when I was in need of a good idea...

Its opportunity came at Christmas. I was overwhelmed by a sense of pointlessness when choosing a present for my mother this year as I didn't like anything I saw in the shops. But on the day before Christmas Eve I realised that now that the problem had gone from semi-urgent to extremely-urgent, I was in familiar territory. With my extensive experience of last minute projects I could rise to the occasion, defeat my evil arch-nemesis (myself) and make an appropriate present. My mind turned to the wooden bird.

I looked out my original sketches to choose something suitable. I found pictures of parrots, cockatils (both the pink and white varieties), owls and herons: even a dodo. I still want to make the dodo. There was a goose with a golden egg, a firebird, a griffin, a horse with wings, a dove carrying an olive branch and a little image of Lord Vishnu on his giant eagle Garuda.

Some subjects are obviously more suitable than others. One day I will find a client who wants me to make a wooden model of a harpy, but it hasn't happened yet. I also thought it would be a bit of an own goal to make one for my mother, somehow, the connotations not being entirely positive.

The nice thing about my sketches is that they are just that: sketches. They don't pretend to be moments of genius. They are simply a way for me to get my thoughts down before they vanish. They are also my nod to the world of process. At college I had an ongoing situation with my tutors in which they would ask to see the sketches I had used to arrive at my finished piece and I would do my finished piece and then fake the sketches for them. Rather than being actively malevolent I just didn't understand the importance of sketching and it is only years later that, all by myself, I have discovered the joys of planning.

I have seen sketches that are achingly beautiful and clearly going to be difficult for the artist to top in their finished piece, but not mine. A friend once tactfully pointed out that one can have many well-developed artistic skills and still be rubbish at sketching. The funny thing is that I get a lot of pleasure from looking at my sketches, even though they are a bit inept. They feel like an informal conversation with myself and even if they don't portray exactly what I imagine, they remind me of what I was imagining, like a signpost.

I chose the Swan Prince for three reasons: because I remember reading the Hans Christian Anderson story when I was little, because my mother always comments when swans fly over the house and, most importantly, because a swan is mainly white and requires much less decoration, once covered with its white background, than any other bird. Sometimes when practicality knocks you have to answer the door.

So it's as easy as this: mark out the shape you want on MDF and cut it out with a jigsaw, being incredibly careful in the matter of flex, fingers and loose clothing or long hair. I also wear plastic goggles of the chemistry lab variety so splinters don't get in my eyes and earplugs to protect my ears from the racket the drill makes.

In this case I made notches in the wood to slot tail and body together, filing and sanding them until they fitted snugly. Then I gloated over the wooden shapes for a while before getting on with the painting bit.

I actually only primed this wood with a few coats of white emulsion. Next time I will use a proper wood primer but on this occasion I had to move fast and use materials I already owned. I studied the feather patterns on swans' wings and then made my own approximation with a thin oil paint solution. We had now reached Christmas Eve so speed was of the essence, and that worked in my favour as being frugal with time made me bolder and less inclined to rework anything.

The swan has a crown on its head because it is one of eleven princes who were turned into swans by their evil stepmother in The Wild Swans. Their little sister saved them by taking a vow of silence and weaving shirts out of nettle flax to transform them back into princes. Rima had a great idea when I first thought of making this model, that one wing could be a swan's wing and the other be the prince's arm, but the balance of weight had to be exact, so in the end I didn't do it.

The great thing about using white spirit with oil paint is that it dries so much faster: I was able to string the swan up and leave it to dry overnight. I used nylon thread to attach the wings to the body and also to suspend it from a thick dowling rod, pushing the thread through holes drilled in the wings and securing it with little pearl beads. I had to adjust the balance of the model until it hung horizontally but it's just trial and error.

The swan's wingspan is about a metre, so it was too big to wrap up. I left it hanging in my studio and on Christmas morning my mother dutifully walked down there to collect her present. It is now taking up the only bit of free space in her already crowded sitting room. What choice did she have after all my effort? The problem with producing a creative child is that you are obliged to display whatever they make for you. Mission accomplished.