Thursday, 17 May 2012

Elephant No. 228: Floral Foam

Although I originally bought a block of floral foam to use for cocktail umbrellas, I thought I'd carve an elephant into it instead. I remember liking to squish my fingers into this stuff when I was a child, so it seemed like it might be an interesting sculptural medium.

Floral foam was invented by Vernon Smithers of Akron, Ohio in 1954. The story goes that he had a flower arrangement in his laboratory that he was taking home to his wife. Thinking that it would be great if there was a material to keep flower arrangements both upright and watered, he produced a phenol-aldehyde substance that became known by the brand name "Oasis".

Technically described as an "open-celled foam", floral foam absorbs and retains water. Apparently it needs to be slowly soaked rather than submerged to ensure that it becomes properly saturated. For carving, however, I can't imagine that any soaking is required.

In the world of flower arranging, floral foam replaced a spiked metal base called a "frog", which sat in the bottom of a vase to hold the flowers in place. Some florists still prefer frogs, arguing that they work better than floral foam, and can also be reused.

There doesn't appear to be much art created with floral foam, perhaps because of the relative fragility of the material. There are, however, a couple of tutorials on carving simple animals with floral foam, as a way of teaching students the basics of carving.

Lions made by children, carved from floral foam, then painted.

This is the block I started with. It measures 22 x 10 x 7 cm (8.5 x 4 x 2.25 inches). I decided to cut it in half, giving me a block measuring about 11 x 10 x 7 cm (4.25 x 4 x 2.25 inches).

For a cutting implement, I used a small paring knife. If I remember correctly, floral foam is very easy to cut with just about anything, including fingernails, so this knife should be fine.

I'm incredibly bad at carving shapes out of blocks of anything, so I decided I wouldn't bother with drawing a pattern or laying anything on top to guide me. It would only confuse me—and probably annoy me as well, when what I drew didn't magically materialize in three dimensions.

I started by making some, er, very tentative cuts.

I decided next to scribe a bit of an elephant outline, carving and shaving away some more of the floral foam.

This is incredibly messy, leaving individual specks of floral foam everywhere. I continued carving and slicing away to create the major shape, using mostly the paring knife, and occasionally my fingernails. My intention was to squish the foam with my fingers to add some modelling, so I stopped carving at the point you can see in the two photographs below.

Next came the fun part. Because floral foam compresses and holds its shape when you squeeze it with your fingers, I decided to finish the elephant by pushing into it with my thumb and index finger. The two photographs below show what my first finger impressions looked like.

I continued pressing into the floral foam, which is remarkably forgiving. There does come a point, however, at which the material develops a sort of fatigue. It reaches a point of no return, when it stops compressing and begins to fray and break. So I decided to leave well enough alone. Also, it smelled suspiciously like formaldehyde and was starting to give me a sore throat, so I recommend doing this outside, just in case.

One thing to remember is that you can't pinch the foam into shapes you haven't already carved; you can only push things in. For example, although the ears on my elephant look raised, I had already carved them that way; I didn't pull and pinch the material upwards.

This was an interesting activity. It was very easy, and only took about 45 minutes from start to finish. It didn't result in the fine detail I expected, but the material was fun to play with, particularly when it comes to the squeezing bit.

I may paint this at some point to see what happens to it, but I wouldn't rush to make another one of these, mostly because it's messy. On the other hand, floral foam is fun to press, so the remaining half may end up as a desktop toy, poked and squished whenever I get bored.

Elephant Lore of the Day
When I came across the phrase "elephant paths" a few weeks ago, I thought it referred to established elephant migration routes. Elephant paths, however, have nothing to do with elephants.

Elephant paths are the beaten and eroded trails you see veering away from sidewalks. Caused by people creating their own shortcuts, the term is thought to have originated in Latvia, where these trails are literally called "elephant paths"—perhaps because they resemble what a herd of elephants might do to your lawn.

Because elephant paths are thought to say a great deal about human behaviour, there are online initiatives tracking these routes in cities around the world. Private individuals generate content which is posted to sites such as Flickr, Geonames and Wikipedia. The content is then cross-referenced using GPS coordinates and made available online.

Others study the social aspects of elephant paths. What motivates people to take a given shortcut? How often do they use it? What memories are associated with that particular route? Interestingly, some elephant paths become so well-used that they end up being paved. There is a funny example behind a hospital not far from my house. It started as a winding dirt path, but has since been paved with decorative flagstones—eccentric curves and all.

A long and winding elephant path a few blocks from my home. The sidewalk is
about 1.8 metres (6 feet) away.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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