In collaborating, you can do “Clash of the Titans” only if it makes you laugh!

Artists tend to be solitary creatures – totally engrossed in long hours of conversation with our muse rather than with other people. We’re all familiar with marathon days and nights spent in the studio, times in which we resurface only periodically, feeling a bit disoriented by the outside world. As such, collaborations between artists are often talked about as a “Clash of the Titans.”

Colin and I have a very different experience of collaboration, one in which we’re more like two kids building a fabulous sand castle on the beach. Our conversations often go something like this: Me: “I was thinking, what if we…?” Colin: “Yeah! And then we could…!” Me: “Yes!!! And then let’s…!” And suddenly what we are creating together explodes into something much more expansive, complete and beautiful than what we might have done on our own.

Working together on Fauna. Photograph by Dave Robinson

We are often asked how this whole process works: Do we talk about it before we start, lay down some ground rules for engagement, create a “collaboration contract” of who does what (you get to sculpt the eyelashes if I can do the earlobes)? Well, no – much as our relationship has been easy and developed organically, so has our collaborative process. We never really discussed collaborating, we just did it. It was a natural offshoot of our love, working together every day in the same studio space, being inspired by what the other is creating and our constant conversations on everything art.

The foundation of our collaboration is complete trust in each other’s aesthetic sensibilities, talents, commitment, skill sets and ideas. Our communication is based on this mutual trust and blossoms from a shared love of creativity and bringing visions into being. We problem solve from a place of enthusiasm and encouragement.

We each have our own bodies of work – concepts and directions that inspire and intrigue us individually. Often times, these ideas spill over to influence our collaborative works such that our our bodies of work might be seen as developing in a parallel vein.

Spinner of Dreams

Recently, we were deeply honored that one of our collaborative sculptures, “Spinner of Dreams” was selected for the Yasha Young Projects Sculpture Category First Prize Award in Beautiful Bizarre Magazine’s 2020 Art Prize. “Spinner of Dreams” represents a stepping stone in the evolution of our exploration into the narrative capabilities of 3D works.

Spinner of Dreams, 2020 Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize Yasha Young Projects Sculpture Category First Prize winner

Ron Mueck’s “Young Couple”

Several years ago on the Isle de la Cite in Paris, we noticed a long line of people waiting patiently in the pouring rain. A couple of young women told us there was a concert of Pachelbel and Vivaldi at Sainte-Chapelle. “We’re in!” we said and they offered to share their umbrellas with us. We chatted as we joined the line of drenched but excited concert-goers. They mentioned a fabulous sculpture show they’d just seen at the Cartier Foundation and we decided to check it out the next day.

It was a Ron Mueck exhibition. While many of the pieces were outstanding, one in particular caught our attention. From the front, you saw a young couple snuggled up next to each other – seemingly a very sweet composition. When we walked around to the back however, we saw that the boy was gripping the girl’s wrist behind her back in an aggressively uncomfortable looking position, a gesture that completely altered our experience of the piece.

Ron Mueck, “Young Couple” delivers a visual impact when viewed from every side

We talked with each other many times about that work of art and how perfectly he used the sculptural medium to play with the interpretation of story. While sculpture needs to be seen from all sides (often the back is as beautiful and interesting as the front), Mr. Mueck really moved that idea into some intriguing new areas.

Inspired by Mueck’s sculpture, as we set out to create “Spinner of Dreams,” we wanted to do something related to what we’d done before, but also challenge ourselves to bring something new: advancing the surface motif work characteristic of our collaborative pieces and taking full advantage of the three dimensional aspect of sculpture, allowing the viewer to discover the story through the various views.

From the front, she is simply a young girl spinning, with a headdress woven of nature elements that hearken to nighttime and dreams. As the viewer moves around the sculpture, previously hidden features emerge.

A small creature appears on her lap, its body curving around her hip. The creature’s tail blends into her side and then disappears around her. On her back, her hair turns into a bird that together with a lizard, emerges from and blends into her body. Following the lines, you see that she herself along with these creatures – perhaps the seemingly impossible aspects of them like the color of laughter, the feel of a bird’s song, the whisper of a cat and the warmth of a lizard – are what is being spun into stories and dreams. She is creating herself as she spins her dreams.

Often, we both have our hands in every part of the sculptural process, literally and figuratively: from the initial concept, to the selection of a model and the pose, to the parts wherein we are both literally sculpting on opposite sides of the piece at the same time. Many of our collaborations are truly 50/50 in this way. With others, one of us may take the lead conceptually or physically – we consider this person “the principal” on that piece with the other acting as a bit of a “worker bee,” jumping in to help on smaller parts of the process.

Awaken the Night

“Awaken the Night” for Beautiful Bizarre’s “Midnight Garden” show at Modern Eden Gallery opening October 24

Our most recent sculpture is one of these “50/50” sorts of collaborations and a continuation of our exploration into all sides of a sculpture contributing to the story. “Awaken the Night,” was created for the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize “Midnight Garden” show at Modern Eden Gallery opening October 24 in San Francisco. On top of an already curiously jammed schedule, when we received the invitation to participate, given the timeframe typically needed to sculpt, dry, fire and finish a water-based clay, we were challenged to complete the sculpture in a time frame we thought likely impossible but decided to jump in anyway.

As all collaborations, this one started in conversation. I had recently come across an old image of one of our models on a break kneeling next to our dog. I thought it could be intriguing if we put the Doberman head on the human figure and had the dog transform into some other creature. I also wanted to incorporate a current motif I’ve been exploring which has a figure carrying a pair of wings in a manner similar to a musician carrying a cello or harp – the instrument becoming part of themselves.

Colin looked at the image, considering what I presented as an initial direction. Along with this option, we also reviewed two other potential ideas, which we ultimately decided against due to their relative complexity given the time constraints. He thought that using the head of a creature of the night (such as an owl) would be more effective and also preferred the figure to be standing rather than kneeling. Off we went.

We started on Saturday afternoon. We normally do a model photo session with various poses and options. Here, with time pressing, we chose one pose, took one set of “roundabout reference” (360º pictures) and one set with two figures representing the interaction of the characters. Colin processed the images while I set up the armature.

Hard to imagine this will turn into much of anything at this stage!

On Saturday night, while Colin made several maquette sketches of potential creatures, I began roughing in the figure. The clay was a bit wet and mushy, but I mashed it on the armature and let it sit until the morning, hoping it would dry enough for me to work with the next day.

Sunday, I worked on the figure’s legs and torso while Colin worked on the creature. As they each function as the other’s support structure (water-based clay has no internal armature to help it stay standing and naturally wants to return to its natural state – a pile), we needed to develop both parts to a similar level to effectively unite them. Once they were joined, refining portions would become more challenging. I took the night shift, hollowing out the large sections (water-based clay sculptures need to be hollow if they are beyond a certain thickness) and refining the torso.

In the morning, while Colin refined the creature (having decided it was a “Lunar gazelle”), I began roughing in the wings. While the wings set up enough to effectively work with, I roughed in the left arm and hand which would be connected to the gazelle. The sculpture was at a point where we could both work on sculpting various aspects at the same time, so we did. I always giggle when he tells me to stop wiggling it so much!

Tuesday, Colin roughed in the head based on a Screech Owl – we love its marvelous pointy feathers. I sculpted the wings to where they could be attached to the sculpture.

We attached the head and then had to sort out how the human and animal parts would blend. I initially thought of a v-necked collar and Colin was thinking of a feather ruff. I couldn’t picture what he meant, so he quickly sketched his vision on the sculpture and I loved it. Once all the parts were together, then we could actually begin – the final refinements are always done with the parts being viewed in relation to each other.

For the final touch, the Lunar Gazelle needed horns. Colin was making aesthetic choices while also problem solving the horns fitting around the owl-human’s arm, working with the angle of the creature’s head and being able to survive firing and shipping. He created a selection of options from the simple to the very ornate. One at a time, he placed each set and we chose together which worked best in the composition.

We worked late into the night and got up early Wednesday to complete the work. By Wednesday midday, we photographed it and set it to drying. Despite the long days, we were excited to complete the sculpture in this time frame, which was really only made possible by working together. It is much like having two minds and four hands integrated in a the same vision.

Photo by Cynthia Whitney-Ward

Here is a short video run through of the whole process.

People have frequently commented on how unusual our particular collaboration style seems to them, saying they’ve never seen anything quite like it. In a world where going solo may be more the norm, we are grateful to have each other as creative partners who continually challenge each other to improve and bring more to our art. We have each been given the rare opportunity to witness all the facets of another artist’s journey and development, the successes and failures, the sometimes intense but usually extraordinary day-to-day happenings. When we are able to share the inspiration we find in each other and output of our creativity with the world, it is a very good day indeed.

Until next time, keep creating!