Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gargoyles in Clay

Last week, with my art class, I thought it would be fun for the children to create gargoyles from clay (carving seems too messy and frustrating). I brought in a variety of pictures of gargoyles for them to look at. We were all surprised to see that gargoyles didn't have to be scary. Modern gargoyles can even be kind of cute, or look like a real animal or person (not a "horrible, unreal creature of the imagination"), and some even tell a story.
Sea turtle gargoyle. This has a gutter on its back. Note the baby turtle hitching a ride!


What makes a gargoyle? Well, gargoyles are carved grotesques with a spout used to divert water away from the side of a building. The water usually exits through the mouth, but sometimes there is a gutter on top of the gargoyle instead. If the figure doesn't divert the water, it is not technically a gargoyle, but more of a "chimera."

Gargoyles have been used for thousands of years and in a variety of cultures. The word gargoyle means different things in different languages. The most common being: "throat" or "gargle" and the Dutch call them waterspuwer which means "water spitter" or "water vomiter." Pretty cool visual, eh?

I brought some pictures of gargoyles for the children to see. I also brought in the book, "American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone," by Darlene Trew Crist. This book has many wonderful, clear images of a variety of old and new gargoyles along with the stories behind them. With this book, I was able to show the children a bird's eye view of a gargoyles and show them the mortar between the building stones (water erodes this mortar--hence the need for the drainage spouts). There were examples of scary gargoyles and friendly-looking gargoyles as well as an image of the gargoyles at work--one with water spewing from its mouth. Since the children in my art class are very interested in turtles, I showed them a picture of the "Weeping Sea Turtle (p.71)" and we discussed how gargoyles can tell a story.

I also borrowed a couple of other books from the library about gargoyles, but left them at home since they weren't completely appropriate for the children to be viewing.

"Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings," by Janetta Rebold Benton is also a stellar resource on gargoyles. This book also contains many clear pictures of a variety of gargoyles along with interesting text and an extensive bibliography, but some of the images contained nudity. Since I couldn't leave this book out for the children to peruse, I just left it at home.

"The Gargoyle Book: 572 Examples From Gothic Architecture," by Lester Burbank Bridaham was also left at home due to some nudity, but is an interesting resource of black and white images of gargoyles, Chimeres, Heads, and Woodwork that may be inspiring to the older student. The text is brief, so this is primarily a visual resource.

When doing the research for this project I read about a modern-day gargoyle that I had to check out: Darth Vader on the Washington National Cathedral. I went to the site, searched, and lo and behold. there he was! The piece was designed by Christopher Rader as part of a contest. The piece (not actually a gargoyle since it doesn't direct water) was sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter, carved by Patrick J. Plunkett, and placed high upon the northwest tower of the Cathedral. I had to show the kids that one!

Before I handed out the materials for the project, I suggested that the children think not only about what creature they were going to create, but think about what type of building it would be on and if it their gargoyle or grotesque would visually be telling a story.

Supplies Needed:
  • Paper mat to work on
  • Hunk of clay (I used Crayola air dry clay in gray-I used two 5lb. buckets for my 12 art students and my demo)
  • Tools such as a plastic knife, toothpicks, a plastic drinking straw and a roller
  • Meat trays for transporting the finished pieces home
  • Paper towels and water for cleanup
  • Books on gargoyles and reference books on animals, dinosaurs, etc.

After discussing gargoyles (their function, the different designs, etc.), give each child a hunk of clay about the size of a softball. The clay should be kneaded a bit before starting to work. Have the child create a sculpture of an animal or person (real or imaginary). If it is to be a true gargoyle it should have a hole through its mouth (some of the children in my art class just made the mouth open and some made more of a tunnel going through the clay. I think it depends on the the child's wishes and their ability in working with the clay).

Thin pieces will break off when dry, so the child should be encouraged to make pieces that are at least 1/8" thick (but 1/4" thick is even better). Don't forget to add texture and detail to the piece such as scales, hair, etc.

Is your gargoyle telling a story? What elements can the artist include to help us to "see" the story? In my example, I included the turtle's eggs, a baby turtle, some seaweed and the water, so that viewers could see the life cycle of a turtle and its habitat.

Have fun with this! Gargoyles don't have to be scary! Although....scary gargoyles are cool too!
The sea turtle gargoyle from above. One side has the eggs and seaweed, the other has a baby turtle. The wavy things on either side of the shell are ocean waves (looks nice and makes the sculpture less breakable).

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