Monday, 30 April 2012

Elephant No. 211: Plaster Cloth

I happened to see plaster cloth on sale in an art store this morning for only four dollars, so I figured I'd give it a try for today's elephant. I asked one of the clerks if he'd ever used it; he said no, but enthusiastically suggested that it was "Google-worthy". I took that to mean I needed to look it up online, since the package had absolutely no instructions.

Here is what I found online in the way of instructions: "Just wet it, shape it and dry it." The most detailed information I found said to use hot water, dip strips of plaster cloth in the water, affix the strips to a mould and let dry. None of this was particularly helpful to me; however, if it's so simple that it doesn't need more detailed instructions than that, I'm in!

I decided from the beginning that I wasn't interested in making a mould, so it was going to be interesting to see what could be created by shaping this stuff on itself—perhaps a collapsing pile of soggy plaster cloth. But hopefully an elephant-shaped pile of soggy plaster cloth.

Plaster cloth is exactly what it sounds like: cotton gauze, impregnated with plaster. I'm not sure if the pattern of holes is deliberate, or just a function of the manufacturing process, but it makes a very interesting fizzing noise when dunked in water.

I started by cutting a piece of plaster cloth measuring about 7.5 x 10 cm (3 x 4 inches), dipped it in water, and basically just wadded it up to make a head. The plaster sort of flakes at the start, then turns to a smooth plaster that you can mush around. I made a roundish shape, then used my fingers to smooth things out a bit. A word of warning: this material dries very quickly, making it difficult to smooth things out if you're not quick off the mark. I wasn't.

I made a body next with a piece of plaster cloth measuring about 10 x 12.5 cm (4 x 5 inches), wadding this up in the same way. I quickly attached this to the head, which was already dry to the touch, although still slightly damp. Smoothing the wetter plaster of the body into the plaster on the head seemed to make a reasonably secure join, which surprised me a little.

I made a cone for the trunk after this, cutting a piece of plaster cloth about 10 cm by 2 cm (4 x 3/4 inches), then rolling it in on itself lengthwise. I quickly attached it by smoothing it into the head on all sides, then scrunched and shaped it before it dried. I also cut a couple of strips measuring approximately 10 cm by 2 cm (4 x 3/4 inches) for ears, folded these in four lengthwise and stuck them on the head the same way.

Next I cut four strips of plaster cloth measuring 10 cm by about 1.2 cm (4 x 1/2 inches) for the legs. To form the legs, I wet each piece of plaster cloth, rolled it without too much precision, then wadded it a bit and stuck it onto the body. I smoothed the edges of the legs into the body as I had when joining the body to the head, and they stuck remarkably well.

To finish up, I cut a sliver of plaster cloth, twisted it into a tail, and stuck it onto the elephant, smoothing it into the body to make it stick.

The whole thing took me about 15 minutes, so I thought I'd try another one. I made the second one more or less the same way, the only glitch being that simple elephant figures like this have a tendency to fall on their faces because of the weight of their trunks. As a result, I had to keep building up the front legs in tiny increments, in order to tilt the elephant slightly backwards. Luckily, this material lends itself quite well to adding on little bits. It was easy to add two or three tiny wads of plaster cloth to each of the front legs until the elephant balanced. As long as I smoothed each wad into the existing leg, everything held together nicely.

One of the things I noticed was that the thicker parts of the elephant had grown quite warm, as though they were generating their own heat. I'd read somewhere that plaster expands slightly as it begins to dry, then shrinks somewhat towards the end of the drying process. Maybe that's what was going on, because they just as quickly turned cold.

These little guys are misshapen and weird-looking, but I kind of like them anyway. At this point, I could sand them, add a bit more plaster, smooth them out, paint them and so forth, but I think I'll leave them as they are for now.

This is an incredibly easy activity, and not near as messy as I expected it to be. The down side is that you need to work fairly quickly, but if you're not angst-ridden about precision and perfection, there's a certain charm to the process—and even the final product.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants can be quite determined to exact revenge, and clearly never forget a slight. In their 1988 book, Ring of Fire, Lawrence and Lorne Blair reported on the sad tale of a Sumatran friend's cousin.

A few years earlier, the man had come across an elephant raiding his fruit garden. Perhaps not realizing that it is very unwise to anger an elephant, he wounded it with buckshot. The elephant quickly turned and chased him up a tree.

For an entire day and night, the man remained in the tree, watching helplessly as the elephant made several trips back and forth to a nearby stream. Pouring trunkful after trunkful of water on the roots of the tree, the elephant finally managed to loosen the roots enough that he could push the tree over. He promptly trampled the hapless man to death, just as a rescue party arrived on the scene.

Sumatran elephant in river, Aceh Province, North Sumatra.
Photo: David Gilbert

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