Monday, March 21, 2016

making a mace

Back in November a colleague at school asked me if I had ever made a ceremonial mace.  I said no.  Then he asked if I'd consider making one.  Lander University was founded in 1872 and though we've had a ton of ceremonies since then, we've never had a mace as a part of those ceremonies.  

I'm pretty sure we could have gone to and ordered a generic mace just like most other universities do.  And we would have received a generic mace that looked like most other maces.  But we had a unique opportunity to have a mace specifically designed and created for our institution.  I was not interested in making a generic mace and when I was given complete artistic freedom with the project, I was happy to be on board.  

You may be wondering, what the heck is a mace?  Well, it's a weapon.  A skull-basher to be exact.  The mace was a heavy object with a handle that could be swung around in hand to hand combat to smash heads.  Many had sharp points to inflict more damage on impact.  The mace as a weapon transitioned into a more symbolic object held by kings to show their power and authority.  At some point European universities began to have specialty maces made for use in their ceremonies and that trend was brought to the United States.  Many of these maces are made of precious metals and fine woods and are valuable symbols of the universities.  

So now you're thinking, why did they ask me to make one, right?

Well, I take very few things seriously but when I agreed to make the mace, I wanted to be sure I undertook this mission with a little less humor than I normally use in my work.  And while I needed to create something formal and symbolic that would satisfy the needs of the school, I also needed to create a contemporary work of art that would satisfy me as an artist.  Oh, and I needed to do all that in a pretty limited amount of time so the mace could be used in the upcoming presidential inauguration in March.

So I started with research.  I wrote words that felt important to the process.  I looked up images for those words.  Then I sketched ideas in my sketchbook.  As a minimalist, that meant distilling a host of images down into just a few very important ones.  Using "Old Main" as an image became a must.  "Old Main" is our bell tower and our most important architectural image on campus.  It has been used on stationary and print based media for as far back as I could trace.  It was also going to be a huge challenge to make out of steel.

After settling on a sketch using the appropriate imagery, I roughed out this 1:1 scale drawing on a scrap of paper in my studio.  (My Taylor Swift studio sketchbook is under the masking tape in the top right of the photo.)

Then I created a model of my abstracted Old Main image using cardboard.

Once I knew the correct angles and geometry (Take that Mrs. Cole!  You thought I'd never be able to do geometry and I didn't use a single formula!) I was ready to plasma cut some steel.

Some of the flat planes of steel were bent and then they were all welded together.

The welded seams are strong and ugly.  The next step is to make them strong and pretty with a grinder.

Like that.  And here's where the finish began to make itself very important.  I had logical reasons for the symbolism I was planning to use in each part of the mace except for the finished coating.  My plan at this point was to powder coat the mace in a smooth chrome finish.  But doing so would cover all the interesting marks left in the surface from the grinding and polishing.  It started to seem like a bad idea to hide the marks of the process and the beautiful and interesting surface that process left behind.

I finished the tower with it's corners and it's spire and then polished it for a few more days.

Here's the cardboard and steel versions side by side for comparison.

Lander is a very small university in South Carolina.  Over the last 6 years I've noted the advantages to our small size and realized that even though we are small, we send our students and faculty out to have a much larger impact in the world.  That impact is represented in the use of a hemisphere of the globe.  "Old Main" rests on top of that hemisphere and these two images complete the top of the mace.

Now it needed a handle.  Using all steel for this project, weight was an important consideration.  It needed to be light enough to carry to the university ceremonies.  I also wanted to keep it balanced properly.  

After settling on the correct length and weighting the handle in the right spots, I added the third image at the bottom.  The small, organic root springs from the bottom of the handle and signifies that Lander is advancing, growing and changing with the world around it.  Our history is important, but our future is key.  Someone should put that on a fortune cookie.

As I said, weight was a consideration, so the entire mace is hollow.  This smaller hemisphere was added to the top to help transition the eye from the handle into the upper imagery.

Once the metal fabrication was compete, it was time for the first test.  My 6 year old daughter picked it up and held it properly to make sure it was light enough to carry.  She was the first human to hold the Lander University mace.  Look how proud she is.

But seriously, the polishing.  It went on forever.  Every time I thought I was finished, I noticed another area that needed work.  I wanted it to be perfect.

I was perfectly willing to set aside my desire for fun for the process of creating the mace.  I understood the serious nature of the project and I think I created a symbolic object that met those needs.  But the desire to have fun is a strong one.  I'm lucky enough to work with colleagues who agree with me on that.  So the art department talked over various ideas for pulling a prank on President Cosentino.  The basic idea was that I would create the real mace and then create some sort of hideous fake mace and we would "present" the fake mace to him first.

There was a mace unveiling ceremony scheduled for last Thursday afternoon so last Wednesday we set up a quick meeting with the president to give him a mace preview.  His schedule was crazy busy but they worked us in.  He came in late from a tough meeting and there we were, the art department, sitting in his office.  I was cradling the mace in my arms covered in a cloth.  He told us about his tough meeting and said how excited he was to get to see the mace.  I explained to him that no one had seen it yet, not even the other members of my department and that I was nervous about it.  I told him I wanted him to see it and to tell me if he thought it was ok.  When I thought it was played up enough, I pulled the cloth off and this is what he saw...

His face was frozen for about three seconds and then he started laughing.

Lucky for us he loves a good prank.

But I think he was a bit disappointed that he didn't get to preview the real mace.

24 hours later though, he got to see it.  He seemed happier about this one!

There was a big group of art students in the gallery for the unveiling.  MoLo stepped right up and grabbed the mace.  She was the first Lander student to hold it.

Dillon learned not to wear his Lander shirt to events like this.  We made him hold it and pose for group photos.  That's Ramey, Syd Vicious, Turner, MoLo, Lemons, Dillon, OG, Jamaica, Jamie and Metal Megan.

Metal Megan got to hold it too.

Y'all know I'm not a hugger.  But when the first university mace is unveiled and the president calls you over for a hug, you become a hugger.  My students loved this moment and they're still giving me a hard time about it.  

Laura was in charge of photographs and she was kind enough to share these images with me.  She'll capture your family portraits, your cute kids or your event with the best images.  I can get you her contact info.

The mace is cool and all, but the real hero was Terry Powell and the beautiful cabinet and stand he made for the mace.  Terry has been with Lander for many, many years and is a Master Carpenter and our Lead Carpenter.  He can do anything with wood.  That's him beside Dr. Cosentino.  Mrs. Cosentino is beside me.

The cabinet is so great.  It cradles the mace perfectly and the stand is designed with a triangle top to match the mace.  Terry is amazing.

A close up Laura took of the mace in it's cabinet.  I was actually very nervous about how the mace would be received by the faculty.  As I said before, this was not a traditional mace and I tried hard to make it a contemporary work of art.  I knew I was happy with it, but I wasn't sure how other academic people might respond to it.  It feels good to have it unveiled and out there now.  

Most of you probably know that my dad was a welding instructor.  He taught me to weld when I was seven years old.  My website bio also says that I was raised by wolves, but the part about learning to weld when I was seven is actually very true.  I spent my entire childhood learning to weld and work with metal.  I remember specific moments when my dad would brag to other welders about how good my welding was.  I lived for those moments.  When I started making my anthropomorphic forms out of steel and making the welds disappear, pop was impressed.  When I made something and he couldn't find the seams, I knew I was doing good work.  

At the unveiling ceremony Dr. Cosentino talked about how the mace would be around as long as the school was around.  He said it was amazing to think that I had made something that would outlive me.  He asked me if my parents knew I made the mace and what they thought of it.

Four years ago this week, my dad passed away.  Every time I weld I think of him.  Every time I run a pretty welding bead or grind a seam so that it's flawless, I think of him.  If he saw the mace, I'm pretty sure he'd ask what the heck that thing was.  But he'd be proud.  And he'd know that he taught me everything I needed to know to be able to make it.  

After the crowd thinned out a little, jon holloway put me up to using the mace to fend off the wild animals on display in the gallery.  These are images by Hal Looney.  You gotta have a little fun, right?  

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