The Canadian Art Database

Tony Urquhart

A Pile of Rocks!: The Making of a Box Sculpture – Idea to Finished Work

I have been making box sculptures since 1965 — ones that open since 1967. A long time ago I learned that it was better to explore ideas and form through a lot of drawing rather than find myself lost — or worse, bored — halfway through a piece. The average sculpture takes at least two months from start to finish and therefore a few hours spent drawing can save literally months at a later date. For many years I have been keeping idea books — sort of miniature diaries — in which I write notes to myself and comments about work or ideas I come across. Most of the books have cheap, often lined or squared paper and are not acid free. I do this on purpose so that drawings I do in them are unselfconscious — almost throw-always — and consequently I can try out anything without any technical worries; most are done in ballpoint pen. These little books contain many two-dimensional and three- dimensional projects that I never do — some because they are not interesting enough and others because I don't have time. However, an idea will start to form, often over intervals of 10 or 20 pages and eventually will be interesting enough to begin "real" drawings on good paper with pen and wash.'

For this exhibition I decided to follow a sculpture from its conception through to its finished form. Most of my pieces start with some idea but not necessarily a definite title. This particular piece started with my admiration for a sort of found sculpture. For years, on my journeys from Waterloo to London on the back way I passed a wonderful piece, which I still don't know the purpose of. It consists of a snow fence formed into a circle about six feet in diameter filled with rocks and sitting on a sideroad corner. I have made a number of drawings of it over the years. It never seems to change, but I began to think about using the idea in a piece of sculpture [drawing of snowfence/rocks].

It seemed ironic to glorify a pile of rocks — and undoubtedly there is more to it than meets the eye — however the urge to do this was strong enough that I was sure I would not be bored either with the concept or the actual form. Initially, the pile of rocks idea was mixed with the concept of the Irish ruin [drawing #1].

I had done a number of drawings in Ireland of stone famine cottages; gable ends still standing but with roof, windows, doors, and interior all long gone. Gradually the rocks of the Irish cottages gave way to simple rocks — albeit in a pile — and the next few drawings mix the ruined house concept with a cage filled with rocks [drawing #2 and drawing #3]. By drawing #4 the caged rock pile has taken over — but not with any opening doors though there are indications of plexiglass wings. In drawing #5 I started to explore an opening box — one that hides its interior. You will note that five different proportions for the box have been tried out on the right hand side of the drawing. In drawing #6 four different types of boxes are tried — including one with four pots on the top (like drawing #5). These pots made their appearance because I had four similar pieces of wood in my scavenger collection. In fact they will appear off and on right down to the final concept, at which point I had already built the actual box. In drawing #7 three important things appear for the first time: the actual pedestal, which I had found in the basement and was stripping the paint from, the shaped roof, and a diagram (top left) indicating how the doors might open. In drawing #8 I try both the shaped roof and the pots on top, plus a set of wings and the plinth or base upon which the box will stand with the pots again repeated. Drawing #9 shows the actual proportions plus some drawings for the construction of the pile of rocks. I italicized "actual" because having built the box I tried it on the pedestal with the pots and with the shaped roof, finally deciding on the roof. Drawing #10 compares the two versions and was done on pieces of scrap paper during a meeting. My theory of proportion is that no one part should exactly duplicate the dimensions of any other. With the pots the upper part was smaller than the pedestal, with the roof it was bigger.

All of the foregoing drawings concern themselves with form. When the actual object takes shape, it becomes to me much like a blank canvas, albeit a very irregularly shaped one. In fact, the box part of the objects becomes more like four squarish little canvases or eight if you count the interior walls as well. It is at this point where the vague ideas I have had about colour and surface texture must become concrete. This is a very crucial time, but also a very creative and exciting one. I might consider the structure of the sculpture just built to be the bones. Now the flesh or colour and surface must be added. From this point on the approach to the object resembles the one I would take to a painting. For example, I must give the form enough variety to move the eye around it and make it interesting, yet at the same time I must take care not to destroy the unity of the piece. One of the pleasures of working on the object at this stage is working up the surface much like painting, except that in most paintings the forms, even preconceived ones, are fluid, whereas there is not much one can add or subtract from the sculpture at this point.

Surface texture has to be more or less in place before the colour is added. In A Pile of Rocks! I decided to frame the interior pile with a metallic, fairly simple front and then to texture the other three sides and parts of the top where it connected with the flat sides. I wanted the three sides to be almost (but not quite) the same colour and texture; different from but united with the front. In this particular piece I used a technique I had discovered in making frames for my oil paintings. I roughly textured the three sides with acrylic gesso and modeling paste with a stiff brush. When that was dry I coated the whole box front, three sides and interior with a dark red. The next day I lightly sanded it and brought the white of the gessoed ground back through in an irregular pattern; then rubbed it darker with thinned down oil paint. I was working on the box and pedestal separately at this point for convenience sake. I wanted to create the texture on the circular base of the pedestal. While I was starting this it occurred to me that the title A Pile of Rocks! was important to me, enough so that I decided to incorporate it right into the piece. So when the gessoed ground was still wet I worked back into it with various tools, mostly a fiat-head screwdriver, and actually lettered the title in a circle around the base — something I had never done before and something that did not exist in any of the drawings (see detail).

One of the devices I find most exciting in painting is the repetition of colour in different places — the way the reds will form a certain pattern in themselves, but will also interact in an interesting way with the greens and/or yellows. I used to explain this theory to my students by likening it to a round in music — for instance, Row, Row, Row, Your Boat. The tune sounds fine by itself but even better when all four lines are sung together. In this piece I had the dark reddish textures which were repeated on the three sides of the box, on the wing attached to the box and on the base, thus moving the eye around all of the object [image]. I added to this by using silver on the top edges of the window, which frames the rock pile, and finally along the metallic strip on the very base next to the floor. I also used gold around the frame, in a rhythm down the pedestal and along the base next to the floor. Dark brown is used on the base, and in a pattern up the pedestal, and on the inside of the little door. This is where the advantage of the movable parts begins to show. The viewer can decide whether to add this bit of brown to the whole ensemble by opening the door or leave it out by letting the door remain closed. By turning the larger door to which the smaller door is connected, one can position this bit of brown in various positions in space relative to the rest of the piece. The two wings add further possibilities to vary the colours seen, as well as the gesture of the whole piece. [Drawing #8] and [drawing #9] both show equal wings. I decided after the box was well underway, and colour was already on, that the whole ensemble was too symmetrical and needed a jolt. I not only reduced one of the wings, but also radically changed its shape to echo somewhat the pile of rocks in its contour. All of these things must be done in a way that they do not interfere with one another physically — a door mustn't bang into a wing.

Text and drawings from the exhibition catalogue:
Tony Urquhart: Drawings, Boxes and Process
© Gallery Stratford, Thames Art Gallery, Chatham, and Gallery Lambton, Sarnia, 2001.

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