Saturday, 7 January 2012

Elephant No. 97: Safety Pin Sculpture

 When I originally thought of using safety pins for an elephant, I was thinking of trying to make a stretchy safety pin bracelet. Then I decided it would be more interesting to create some sort of sculptural form with safety pins.

Fastenings like the safety pin have been around since at least the thirteenth or fourteenth century B.C. in the form of fibulae. Invented by the Myceaneans, the fibula fastened clothing in a way similar to the safety pin, but often had no safety clasp.

Celtic bronze fibula, ca. 5th to 3rd century B.C.

The invention of the modern safety pin is credited to an American mechanic named Walter Hunt. The story goes that Hunt owed a friend $15 (approximately $500 today). He decided to invent something new as a way of paying his friend back. Taking a piece of brass wire about 20 cm (8 inches) in length, Hunt made a coil in the middle, so that the two halves would spring apart when released. He also added a clasp to keep the wearer from getting stabbed with the sharp end.

Hunt was issued a patent in April 1849, and promptly sold his patent rights to W.R. Grace and Company for $400 (about $13,500 today). Hunt paid his friend $15 and kept the remaining $385 for himself, not realizing that his invention was worth millions.

Walter Hunt's safety pin patent application.

In addition to being a practical fastener for everything from diapers to clothing, safety pins have found their way into art and fashion. They are used to produce jewellery and sculptures, and became an important part of fashion, beginning with the Punk movement of the late 1970s. Safety pinned clothing was said to have originated with Punk music innovator Richard Hell, whose style was quickly adopted by young British punks. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, however, had a more pithy take on the use of safety pins in Punk clothing, suggesting that the pins were simply "to keep the arse of your pants falling out." Since the 1970s, safety pins on clothing have gone mainstream, and are even seen in couture collections.

Balmain safety pin jacket.

For today's elephant, I toyed with the idea of simply attaching a bunch of safety pins to a piece of fabric in some sort of design. Then I decided it might be more challenging and interesting to try and attach the pins to one another in a semi-sculptural form. More fool me. Without a clue what I was doing, I should have thought twice about trying to engineer something with a medium as unforgiving as safety pins.

I had about 100 brass safety pins in two sizes, so I started with those. They're a little finer and more pliable than the steel ones, and I figured I could bend them to my will if I wanted. I also liked the brass colour better than the steel grey.

I pretty much just stared at them for the first ten or fifteen minutes. Having never even made a stretchy safety pin bracelet, I wasn't really sure how one went about actually constructing something from safety pins.

I began by making a sort of box shape by interlacing a bunch of safety pins, attaching them along the ends with additional pins. Although proud of having figured out this shape, I had no idea what to do next. I thought I could maybe use this box as the body, but I couldn't really see how to attach legs—or anything else, for that matter.

I turned my attention to the head. This was a huge trial-and-error experiment. I pinned and re-pinned things in all kinds of ways, eventually settling on something that looked at least somewhat like an elephant head.

The bad news was that the head was monstrous in relation to the "body" I had already made. This required a rethinking of my original design, which had been an entire elephant made of safety pins. No way was I going to be able to make such a thing with: 1) my level of safety pin expertise; and 2) the number of safety pins I had to play with.

I decided instead to make a sort of tiled abstract body. I built some more safety pin squares like the first one I'd made, and pinned them together. I had already attached the head to the first square, so I just attached the new ones farther down. I also enhanced the trunk a bit—at least, I think I did. I pinned and unpinned it so many times, that I lost track of what I'd had originally.

It was also a big mistake to pick it up and flip it over, because the head area was not as rigid as the body, and the safety pins flopped about at will, turning the trunk into part of the ear, or part of the head. This only looks good laid flat—and only if you don't touch it. To keep it, I'm going to have to glue it to something rigid.

I don't actually hate the final result, as frustrating and confusing as it was to make. I'd like to try something more elaborate with safety pins when I have more than a couple of hours to play with it. If I'm lucky, I might even get the hang of building something truly three-dimensional. And maybe something that looks a little less like a seahorse.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Like most humans, elephants are either right-handed or left-handed—but in their tusks, rather than their feet. Studies show that all elephants favour one tusk over the other. Because the favoured tusk is used to dig for water and minerals, and to gather food, the tusk becomes more blunt, but also stronger, thicker and more developed.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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