During my college semester studying abroad in Sydney, Australia in 2009, I took a sculpture class. I've already documented the sculpture I created during the second half of the class, which focused on space.

This project is from the first half of the class, where we considered mass. We worked in clay and plaster.


  1. A coherent, typically large body of matter with no definite shape
  2. A collection of incoherent particles, parts, or objects regarded as forming one body


The assignment was to sculpt a head -- our professor's head, who sat as the model -- out of clay, and then cast it in plaster.

I decided I wanted to sculpt a realistic head, rather than an overtly abstract one. The biggest reason for this was that I had never sculpted anything big out of clay before. Although it certainly takes skill to create chaos in a visually pleasing way, it is perhaps more difficult to create order in one-to-one correspondence with the actual world. I like a challenge.

We started by talking about the proportions of the human head, looking at example sculptures of human heads that varied from realistic to highly abstract. The next task was to practice: we took lumps of brown clay and mushed them into representations of various facial features. Eyes, noses, mouths. As it turned out, this practice was remarkably helpful when trying to form the much larger block of clay into a realistic head shape.

fairly realistic eyes, noses, and mouths sculpted out of brown clay

Construction of the clay model

I added lumps of clay to a wooden base set with a wooden center post piece by piece, using my hands to mold the clay into a general head-like shape. A variety of tools for working with clay were provided. I preferred to use my hands. I felt I had better control over the resultant shapes that way.

a bald head sculpted in brown clay, features a little rough around the edges

After finishing the initial form, I smoothed out his features a bit:

a bald clay head, features smoothed and shiny

Casting in plaster

The next stage was to make a plaster waste-mold using the clay head as a base.

After touching up the clay head, I sketched a seam line through across the top of the head and down in front of its ears to mark out where the metal shim fence would go. This would keep the two halves of the plaster mold apart.

clay head with thin metal pieces inserted across the crown of the head and down in front of the ears

Then it was time to throw plaster. Literally. First, I applied two aptly-named splash coats. The point of throwing handfuls of plaster at the clay model was to remove air bubbles. These layers were followed by a clay rubbing--which makes it easier to remove the plaster layers later--and three layers of thicker plaster, about the consistency of thick whipped cream.

head with metal shim fence, features less distinct now that they are coated in two layers of thin plaster

head with metal shim fence, looking blob-like with the last thick coat of plaster applied

The next class, we separated our molds. A chisel and mallet did the trick. The front half came off clean, except for the nose. I scraped the clay out of the back half and cleaned them both up. This was followed by painting on two coats of shellac to seal the mold.

front half of the mold sits empty on the right; on the left, most of the clay head rests intact in the back half

two empty halves of the mold, clean, shiny with shellac

Then it was time to fill the mold! After spraying on a thin coat of WD-40 to prevent the poured plaster from sticking, I tied the two halves together with wire. Any gaps along the seam line were plugged with clay. Then I propped up the mold open-side up in a bucket, and poured in the plaster.

mold tied together, upside-down in a bucket, wet plaster visible in the opening at the neck

The following week, it was time to remove the mold from the casting. A chisel and mallet came in handy once again.

with part of the layers of plaster removed, the neck and chin of the casting is visible

I chipped away at the plaster mold to reveal the casting. Some cleanup with sandpaper, a scrub brush, and a metal scraper was required.

plaster head with rough patches, excess plaster from the mold stuck in the ears, mouth, and seam line

In the end...

"The world is an okay place."

I had tried not to distort the face's features during my initial clay work. I returned later to adjust the clay to work better for the plaster mold, smoothing out some features, slightly exaggerating or emphasizing others. The result is a calm face, a peaceful face. He looks content, does he not?

a plaster casting, smoothed, with calm, rounded features and a slight smile

Despite the little holes here and there, the pockmark at the corner of his mouth, the pimple of plaster--he is content. He knows that no person is perfect. The blemishes, the marks, the indents and pocks on our faces are evidence that we have lived in and interacted with the world around us, instead of hiding in a sterile box where the world is not.

I tried, with this sculpture, to convey a sense of acceptance of things as they are, of life as it is. So I did not fill in the holes or file away all the pimples; I didn't cover the plaster by some other color or finish. It reflects the way life is: a little imperfect, a little unfinished. But despite, okay. Good enough for us.

Thus the title:

The world is an okay place.


Chain of steel puzzle piece frames connected end-to-end and hung from ceiling

"Selves" (2009) - steel sheet and steel wire


I almost titled this section "Space: The Final Frontier." You see, I did this work as a part of a sculpture class. In the first half of the class, the focus was on mass; I worked in clay and plaster. The second half of the class emphasized space. Space:

  1. a continuous area or expanse that is free, available, or unoccupied
  2. an empty area left between one-, two-, or three-dimensional points or objects
  3. the dimensions of height, depth, and width within which all things exist and move

I was supposed to develop a work that explored three-dimensional, volumetric form, and that consisted of repetitive elements involving change or variation. There was a selection of sheet metal and metal wire available for the project; ideal, perhaps, for the more abstract forms that often result from an exploration of the space around and between objects.

Close-up of steel puzzle piece frames connected end-to-end


I had a plethora of ideas revolving around selves, self-reflection, consciousness, perfection, how people interact and connect, the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio, mirrors, infinity, the way pieces of ourselves are shared, facets of ourselves, the way people are perceived, and... well, the list goes on.

The idea I finally narrowed down on is best explained by the following metaphor: A person is a set of puzzle pieces. The puzzle pieces add up to create the pattern of who one is, shaped both from within, and from others' outside perceptions. Some pieces are unique to oneself. Some pieces are identical to those that compose other people. Some pieces almost match up, but not quite. People overlap and interconnect.

At first glance, relationships appear straightforward--as in the chain of puzzle pieces: at the top, it is more orderly, periodic, and coherent. I overlap with this person because of a shared interest in robots. She and I went to the same high school. He and I both react calmly in upsetting situations. But the more you know a person, the more levels down you dig, the farther down the chain you go, the more chaotic it becomes. Pieces branch off the main line. There are more overlaps, more connections, more intricacies. The pieces don't fit together cleanly.

Many of my initial sketches focused too much on mass and not enough on space. As I did more research, I noticed that the works I found most appealing were those that involved space and interacted with it, instead of just presenting forms bounded by their own edges--exactly what this project was all about. I also realized I did not have to make my ideas so explicit--I could suggest instead of state, and with that change, remove a layer of visual noise. The final design is far more simple than my initial sketches.

Even after I built the puzzle piece frames you see in the chain, it took me quite some time to decide how best to arrange them. Early thoughts involved placing some frames inside others to create 3D pieces, but I experimented with all possible arrangements: laying all twelve frames flat in a grid, stacking them, suspending them from a mobile, lining them up... Then I tried hanging them in the chain you see in the photos. It's always the last thing you try that works!

Materials & Construction

Two strips of steel bent into the outline of a puzzle piece and have been spot welded in place where they overlap

The puzzle piece frames are constructed from galvanized steel sheet metal (zinc-coated). I cut the sheet metal into strips 1.5cm wide and bent the strips into shape with a simple pair of pliers. Each strip was long enough to make about half of a puzzle piece frame, so I spot-welded two strips together for each frame, taking care not to breathe in the toxic fumes from the zinc.

A wire is threaded through a hole in each of two steel puzzle piece frames and bent over on either end to hold the frames together

To connect the pieces in the chain, I drilled a hole through the steel at each connection point, then slipped a bit of galvanized steel wire (1.6mm gauge) through the holes and folded the ends over. Simple, easy, and able to be disassembled if necessary.