Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Elephant No. 213: Chicken Wire

While poking around a discount store yesterday, I came across a roll of chicken wire in their gardening section. Since it was only a couple of dollars, I bought it to use for today's elephant.

I had used chicken wire years ago to keep squirrels out of the eaves of our elderly house, so I knew that it would bend and compress in interesting ways—perfect for making a sculptural elephant of some sort.

Invented in 1844 by British ironmonger Charles Barnard, chicken wire was created for Barnard's father, who was a farmer. Barnard based his manufacturing process on cloth-weaving machines, which were common in his home town of Norwich. The Barnard, Bishop & Barnard company later produced chain-link fencing as well, and went on to sell various types of wire fencing around the world. The video below shows chicken wire being produced in a process reminiscent of its cloth-weaving origins.

Also known as "poultry netting", chicken wire consists of thin, flexible galvanized wire with hexagonal holes. It is available with different-sized holes, and is made with wire in gauges ranging from 19 to 22.

Chicken wire is generally used to build enclosures for small animals, as well as to protect plants and property from wildlife. The zinc coating of galvanized wire is not, however, good for animals prone to gnawing on things, and the wire is not strong enough to keep out determined predators.

In construction and art, chicken wire is often used as a substructure for cement, plaster and even papier-mâché. It is also often used in rowdy performance venues, to prevent projectiles from hitting the people on stage.

Interestingly, chicken wire embedded in the concrete or stucco walls of a building will often block or reduce radio-frequency transmissions such as Wi-Fi and cellphones. This is because the mesh of chicken wire inadvertently creates a Faraday cage.

For today's elephant, I had this roll of chicken wire measuring 1.8 by 0.6 metres (5.9 by 2 feet). I decided I wouldn't cut it at all if I could avoid it, and I would also avoid wrapping any additional wire onto it.

I had no clue what I was doing, so I started with the most obvious thing: the trunk. Once I'd squished the tip of the trunk, I squeezed gently towards the head area.

When I thought the head section looked about the right size, I squeezed the chicken wire together to form a neck. At this point the head looks quite large and rather weird, but that's because I wanted to leave some extra wire in the head to form ears later.

Because I didn't want to cut anything or wire on anything new, I made a big loop for the body, figuring I could squish in some legs later. To make the body loop stay in place, I folded the raggedy ends of the roll of chicken wire into the neck area, wrapping them over enough to secure the shape.

It was a bit unwieldy and "floaty" at this point, with a definite mind of its own, so I set to forming legs, ears, and a more rounded body. This involved mostly compressing the shape by pushing the chicken wire together here and there, flattening other parts, and folding edges of wire over one another to lock things into place. 

It's an extremely eccentric construction, and I briefly toyed with squishing it down a lot more to make it more even and more densely packed. Then I decided that I kind of liked the airiness of the shape as it was. It's too light to stand up without wanting to fall over on its face, but it might be interesting rooted in the garden as a topiary form of some sort. Or I might add more chicken wire later, or perhaps even layer on plaster cloth or something to make a more solid form. Or just leave it as it is.

It was a bit difficult to photograph, but hopefully you get the idea. I was rather pleased that I was able to make this out of a single sheet of chicken wire, just by pushing and pulling and folding. And I didn't even cut myself or poke holes in my fingers once—which is, quite frankly, astonishing for someone like me.

This only took me about half an hour to shape, and somewhat longer to rassle into suitable photographic poses. But I quite like the final piece. No idea where to put something that measures about 0.6 metres (2 feet) high by about 0.9 metre (3 feet) in length, but that's a minor detail.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although turkeys get their name from the eponymous country, the birds actually originate in the Americas. Technically known as the "helmeted guineafowl", turkeys were once called "turkey guineafowl" or "turkey fowl" because they arrived in Central Europe via Turkey. The name later became shortened to simply "turkey".

Why turkeys for today's elephant lore? Because the name for turkeys in Central Asia's Dari language has nothing to do with Turkey or the Americas. Perhaps based on its size, a turkey is literally fil murkh, or "elephant chicken".

For days, this particularly persistent elephant chicken knocked on
my cousin Michelle's back door—probably attacking its own reflection.
Photo: ©2012 Michelle Steiglein

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