Ode to the Old Guitarist: Inside Advanced Sculpture
May 6, 2019
The auditorium’s entrance at the end of main hall is rarely decorated, save for theatre advertising their latest show. Fine Arts Festival, however, presented a much different piece of work developed by students at Cypress Ranch. Ode to the Old Guitarist, debuting just a few days before the Fine Arts Festival, is the latest product of one of the smaller fine art classes at Cypress Ranch taught by David Clark.
The mixed media installation was created by the Cypress Ranch Advanced Sculpture class; consisting of Zach Childs, Emma Hilburn, Mina Lawver, Makenna Leese, Jessica Nelson, Queenie Ntoutoume, Mary Shank, Andrew Ung, and Matthew Woods. The structure itself stands multiple feet tall at the end of main hall, consisting of nine pieces — constructed by each of the nine students — which form the overall work itself.
True to its name, the work derives from Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period painting The Old Guitarist, depicting an old man weakly hunched over his guitar, albeit flipped on its side due to spacial constraints. The Picasso piece was chosen as inspiration by the class as a piece that had a distinctive style, but wasn’t overdone or incredibly well-known, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, as to bring attention to the installation. “We chose [The Old Guitarist] because we thought it would be a piece that would be generally recognizable, but not too cliche,” Childs told me in the hallway. “So we wanted it to be kind of obscure, but recognizable to the few people who would know.”
Childs was heavily involved with the creation of the sculpture, creating the upper left portion of the installation that comprises of the guitarist’s eye and right ear. Childs also did all the charcoal work, oversaw the painting of the structure itself, and aided in the installation of the structure. Oversight was not a particularly easy job, with the structure being the class’s first collaborative piece and Clark allowing his students to direct themselves in the formation of the piece. “All of us have different styles, and we had different opinions on how to do things,” Childs recollected. “So all of us were trying to take our own routes and it was just really hard to get all of us on the same page.”
Planning was executed through small-scale models of the work itself, with sections being levied onto each student by Queenie Ntoutoume — another student I talked to — and standards being set to ensure the final work would fit together into one solitary frame. “The most difficult part was figuring out how you’re going to do it on such a large scale,” Mary Shank told me about the piece. “All our models had to be very small and then we had to be able to draw it out. And since we were all doing separate pieces, they had to be able to line up and come together as a whole.” Planning had to come with lots of scrutiny and time, as a collaborative piece requires everything to come out in not just a timely fashion, but also in an orderly fashion to make sure the pieces fit together.
The construct comprises of blue styrofoam that’s been layered with glue, which is then painted over with a latex paint. After two layers of paint, another layer of black acrylic splatter is applied, with a layer of charcoal finally being applied to give the piece its distinctive texture. In total, all this work took roughly two weeks. Planning the structure itself took three days, with actual construction of each piece taking roughly a week, and painting finally taking an additional three days.
Finally, the piece was installed in main hall using aircraft cables, which were more finicky than expected. “It was kind of hard installing it because it’s a little heavy,” Childs commented. “And it broke the the aircraft cable twice, but we got it up. And it was a lot of trial and error, but that’s what art is about.” Nonetheless, with the piece finally up, the Advanced Sculpture class was happy to see their work displayed for the entire school to see. “It’s fun getting to see people’s reactions and everything,” Shank added. “But then it’s also fun for us, because we’ve been working on this for a few weeks. And we keep kind of piecing it together and you kind of have an idea of what it’ll look like, but we’re not completely sure until it was up and I was just excited to see this year finish and see that final product of all that work.”
Sculpture extends far beyond the structure presented in main hall. While the large mixed media installation might be one of the class’s flashiest works, the scope of Advanced Sculpture goes far beyond that. One aspect of the class which came up consistently in the interviews that I had with three of the class’s students were the laid-back atmosphere of the class, in spite of its heavily skill-based curriculum.
“Personally, I’ve been in sculpture all four years of high school,” Childs reminisced. “And not only is it a great class to blow off steam or to just be creative and have fun. It’s very skill-focused and it’s leading a lot into art-based careers. It’s a lot of work, but it’s done in such a way that we all love doing so much. We really do.”
Unlike most classes and most performing arts where a strict curriculum is set in place by the teacher/director, Mr. Clark is very hands-off with his Advanced Sculpture class, who are left to their own devices to plan and produce their own works, albeit with some initial direction. As a result, classmates to work with each other to advance their individual works and techniques, helping form bonds and friendships in the class.
Towards the end of my initial interview with Childs, I asked them what they saw when they looked at the final installation. “I mean, visually, I just see the old guitarist and an abstract form,” Childs responded. “But I really see all of the hard work that we put into it and the memories that I made with some of my friends and creating it.”
Mr. Clark himself was the other aspect of the class students lavished over. Laid-back and skilled in sculpting, the students I talked to always spoke positively of the freedom he granted them and the aid he gave when they needed it. “He’s my favorite teacher in the whole school because he’s so creative and he knows what he’s doing, and he’ll lead you in the right direction,” Shank expressed. “But he also kind of like ‘figure it out for yourself,’ and so he knows how to kind of balance him telling me what to do and just letting me be creative with it. I love how open and willing he is to kind of do whatever we want to do”
The open style of Advanced Sculpting allows students to take on whichever medium they desire for their project, added they’re not restricted by a certain assignment or project. “Advanced Sculpture’s a lot of fun,” Shank said regarding the class. “Sculpture I was very like, ‘do this project do this project,’ but in Sculpture III, you have a lot more open room to kind of do everything and kind of explore with your style of sculpting and just kind of mess around and try different things.”
Along with styrofoam, a wide array of materials are at the disposal of the advanced class, including metal, wire, clay, and wood. When I came in to interview some of the students, I saw multiple students sculpting with clay in preparation for the Fine Arts Festival, with two other students engaged in wood engraving for individual projects.
“I think we have a pretty good director who was able to guide us through all that, but still giving us artistic freedom and the way that we all made our pieces,” Ntoutoume added. “And that’s also something really cool about our sculpture program, as we can basically do whatever we want to express ourselves however we want, but still be learning and be taught throughout it all.”
Advanced Sculpture is by no means an easy class, but what I was able to take away from my discussions with the students and the director was how the open structure of the class helps it be more intimate and more informal and fun for the students.
“Even the challenges, all of us really face them head-on,” Childs said. “All of us absolutely hated working on this; it was so difficult. But the end piece is fantastic and I do not regret making it at all. And that’s the main part of Sculpture in our class. Everything in there is really really difficult, but we all just love doing it. We love the challenge and we love creating something.”
Advanced Sculpture is a small class, and probably one of the more underrated and underappreciated fine arts classes at Cypress Ranch. But, even without the attention and appraisal that the other fine arts and performing fine arts classes receive, the students in it love the class and their time in it nonetheless. “I just love [sculpting] so much,” Shank told me. “And it’s my favorite class. Kind of my escape from the rest of life.”