Fleeting moments of everyday life

Willig works in bas-relief often, such as this work depicting two people in a crowd.

CORNISH — Augustus Saint-Gaudens would have done over a dozen studies (sketches) before building the first clay model of his Lincoln. The 13-foot bronze statue dominates the garden museum, darkly looming over an open stretch of lawn.

Dan Willig, the Saint-Gaudens Historical Park Artist-in-Residence for 2019, was also in residence last year and has returned — this time for a longer season, with more classes and more instructional time for visitors. Around 12:30 p.m. every day he gives a “process tour” to demonstrate how Saint-Gaudens created the sculptures exhibited at the historical park and museum.

Willig has built a model of the Adams Memorial bronze, with samples of each stage of the five-step lost-wax process. His model is small enough to hold in one hand, but the Lincoln would have required a more complicated process than the one he’s explaining today. To do one leg, for instance, the back and front of the leg would be cast and later put together.

“Saint-Gaudens would have done a piece mold with about 21 pieces,” said Willig. “There would be another mold on top of it to hold the keys in place.”

The first figure is a clay model, a small replica of the Adams. In the next step in the process a mold is built large enough to accommodate the clay model and a layer of rubber is poured around it. The model is removed, and the rubber holds the negative imprint of the model. Next, wax is poured into the negative space and takes on the form of the model. The sculptor then does a process called “chasing,” said Willig, removing air bubbles and imperfections from the wax model. Next, a ceramic model is built around the wax model. Once the ceramic model is set, it can be heated and the wax will melt away — the “lost wax” process. This leaves a negative space in the ceramic mold, into which hot bronze can be poured.

“Bear in mind the cast wax is only 3/16ths [of an inch],” said Willig. “The sculptures are hollow.”

The thickness of the bronze is near the thickness of the wax it has replaced. In the case of the Lincoln, the pieces would then have been welded together, then chased to remove any imperfections.

Saint-Gaudens, a busy and important sculptor when he was commissioned for the Lincoln, the Adams Memorial, or the Shaw Memorial, would have had his hand in the process in the beginning — creating the model — and in the end — chasing the bronze and finishing the sculpture.

“He would have overseen everything; he went to the foundries. Nothing was cast here. The foundries were in Boston or Paris. He would have overseen everything. He ran a tight ship,” said Willig.

Once the bronze is finished, the patina is added. “It’s not paint; it’s not a layer on top of it,” said Willig, “although some people think so. It’s a chemical reaction that changes the metal.”

The patina on the Lincoln is a liver sulphur; another common patina is ferric nitrate. “That gives you all your browns,” he said. The last step in the process is to coat the bronze with wax, which brings out the shadows and lights. “Otherwise it becomes matte. It’s a visual thing; you wouldn’t be able to see the folds of Lincoln’s vest from here.”

The two tourists from Albuquerque turn to look at Lincoln across the lawn.

Willig is fascinated by 19th-century French sculpture, like Rodin and of course, Saint-Gaudens. The process he’s describing didn’t change for hundreds of years. Lost wax was used by the ancient Greeks. “The process didn’t really change until the 1960s,” he said. “Art is so small that major technological changes don’t go to it first. They’re made for industry, and then artists use them.”

3-D printers and computers have changed the process of art, but it still comes down to the artist (the man from Albuquerque observed). Willig, however, uses this historical process to capture fleeting moments of the modern age.

“I go down to New York City and take a lot of pictures,” he said. The bas-relief he is working on in the Artist’s Studio, across the lawn and behind the Lincoln, depicts two strangers with their backs to each other, in the everyday proximity of people in crowds. The foreground figure is an older woman talking on her phone; behind her, a man holding a to-go coffee cup passes the other way.

“I’m not just trying to make lonely work ... over the last year, the meaning of the work has changed. I know why I’m sculpting these things. It’s people in their environment, a fleeting moment.

“It’s an observation of the new social norm.”

Willig was recently awarded the National Sculpture Society 2019 Dexter Jones Award for his bas-relief Brick Wall. To see more of his work, go to danielwillig.com. For classes and programs at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Park, go to the National Park System site (nps.gov/saga/index.htm) or call 603-675-2175.

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