Sculpture takes on new meaning from a child's point of view

Herbert Spencer called sculpture the "efflorescence of civilized life," and Richard Realf believed that "Into the statue that breathes, the soul of the sculptor is bidden." That still does not explain what sculpture is, but I've found the perfect definition.

I recently took a winter sculpture trek with a group of neighborhood children , and fell immediately into a bog trying to define the art. "A car can be a sculpture," said one child, confidently. "A house can be a statue," another declared.

Anything that deals with shape and form can be a statue, we decided, if that is its purpose.And the purpose of a statue was brilliantly defined for us by 10 -year-old Debbie, who called it "the shape of an idea."

With that definition in mind, we visited the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, D.C., a doughnut-shaped building devoted to modern art. Outside is wonderfully varied collection of scuplture, where the children raced from piece to piece.

Four-year-old Bryce, who lives in an interesting world peopled with superheroes, was immediately drawn to Emile-Antoine Bourdelle's "The Great Warrior of Montauban," a massive, muscular figure who obviously ate all his spinach. Bryce spent several minutes describing the gruesome actions the warrior would take with his magnificent sword.

The older children were smitten with Jean Ipousteguy's statuesque illusion, "Man Pushing the Door." On one side, the man bumps the door, while on the other side, his hands and leg come through the wood. What intrigued the children was the statue's authenticity: "The door has real hinges!"

quality that children appreciate; Claes Oldenburg's aluminum "Mouse" got us tittering. The flexible, squeaky Disney version was transformed by Oldenburg into a hard, black, anchored piece, complete with geometric eyes the kids used like windows.

Oldenburg's work is often a play on form, but the work of Henry Moore is more like form's celebration. When we say his "Three-Piece Reclining Figure No. 2: Bridge Prop," it looked like three rather awkward lumps to me, and like a potential climbing toy to Bryce. The rest of our party, however, saw the body shapes -- legs, arms, bottoms, breasts -- that the sculpture chose to emphasize.

Defining ideas through form is the classic principle of sculpture. Newer sculptors, however, are free from the restrictions of the art's usual materials -- wood, clay, stone, or brass -- and have used new materials to express forms that were impossible under the old restrictions.

Some sculptors revel in this freedom by creating hymns to structure, like Kenneth Snelson's "Needle Tower." An aluminum and stainless steel wire job that looks like an imitation of a radio tower, the work is a study in triangles, of strength through the stress of three sides pulling against each other.

We were seven people, but the principle remained the same. We formed a circle, joined hands, and leaned back, feeling both the stress and the strength.

By this time, even our mittens were cold, so we plowed inside to the shivering stares of the guards. There, beside the information desk, stood Aristide Mailol's gorgeous "Nymph," which our irreverent bathc transformed into a cartoon. "She's saying, 'Where's the bathroom?'" 10-year-old Sherry said with a giggle.

Her seven-year-old brother asked the question they all were thinking: How come most statues don't have any clothes on? I could have given him Nathaniel Hawthorne's acid answer: "Every young sculptor seems to think that he must give the world some specimen of indecorous womanhood, and call it Eve, Venus, a Nymph , or any name that may apologize for a lack of decent clothing."

Instead, I explained that sculptors admire the shape of the human body, and you cannot see the body very well when it is all dressed up.

We went upstairs to look at heads: Raymond Duchamp-villon's "Maggy" (a kind of disembodied Barney Google), and Henri Matisse's study of five "Heads of Jeannette," which melt from the highly realistic to the highly abstract. "If you were going to make the sixth head, what would it look like?" I asked them.

"Gee," Sherry pondered, "it would just barely be there."

Other sculptures by Matisse showed lines from their molding, and the children studied these so they could tell which works were carved (from marble or wood, usually), which molded (mostly bronze), and which modeled from other materials (like the Needle tower).

We took these observations home with us, and set out to make sculptures of our own, using all three methods.First, we tried carving with dull knives on hardened plaster. It flopped, miserably -- the plaster was just too hard.Laer, I tried my six-year-old daughter on a bar of soap, which went well and quickly.

For molding, we took a block of paraffin (usually available in drugstores and some large groceries) and the crayon color of their choice. Both of these were tossed into an old, clean coffee can set in a pan of simmering water. Paraffin is highly flammable, so we were careful to heat it only to the point of melting.

Meanwhile, the amiable Ricky was sent outside with a large, plastic bowl to gather sand from our sandlot. The children dampened the sand and dug out shapes for the molds -- monsters and letters.I poured the melted paraffin into this and set it aside to harden for several hours.

Finally, we brought out the most familiar sculpture material -- modeling clay , which the kids used to make snakes, fruits, and people.

The paraffin method was the most popular among our brood, but they agreed that any method will do, if it lets your ideas take shap e.

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