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News & Muse

From Samurai Sword to Saguaro

Updated: May 9

A bas relief sculpture of a saguaro cactus with numerous very small arms and a woodpecker peering out of a hole against a mottled tan background
Popping Out All Over, 20" x 10"

Here's my latest piece! This one is mostly polymer clay (with a little pastel and paint to create depth) on a hand-painted paper collage background.

 

The patterns in the clay are made with the mokume gane technique (pronounced "moe-coo-may gah-nay"). It's an adaptation of a metalworking technique from Japan--another example of polymer's amazing versatility! 


Disk with 3 vertical, oblong holes spaced evenly along a horizontal center line
A samurai sword guard (tsuba) made of copper mokume gane with precious metal decorations. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mokume gane means "wood-grain metal." One way to create the patterns is by distorting layers of different colors and then removing material to reveal the design. Some control is possible but the final patterns are always random to a large degree. This article from The Met explains more and shows how it's done for metal.


Here's how I did it for my piece...


I started with four sheets of green clay, making sure to have both lighter and darker shades. My sheets were not blended to a solid color to add even more variation to the final veneer.


Four sheets of mottled green clay in lighter and darker shades

The sheets were stacked one on top of the other twice over and rolled till all eight layers together were just 1/4 inch thick. Various objects were pressed into the stack from both the top and bottom. Chunks cut off the sides of the stack were used to fill in some of the depressions.


A block of green clay with impressions in the top, some of them filled in; 2 ball tools, a plastic shell-shaped bead, and a rock

Then I took very thin slices of small areas of the stack.



Dozens of small irregularly shaped slices of patterned green clay

There were a LOT of little slices--this is just a bit more than half of them.



I overlapped the slices into the shapes I needed, flattened and trimmed them, and added pastels to the raw clay to suggest the pleats of the cactus.


A log strip of patterned green clay with a dark stripe down the middle of the length; 2 brushes and cakes of green and brown pastels; a green pastel stick with an x-acto knife and a pile of powder in a silver dish; a small piece of carper
Texturing small pale green shapes on a round cactus with a needle


Finally, I added small textured shapes to suggest the glochids and spines of the cactus.


I love the way the pattern came out!! Saguaros often have subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, variations in their skins due to their very long lives. I think the mokume gane really works as a nod to that.


Detail view of the sculpture showing the saguaro trunk and 5 arms


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