I have never had the opportunity to meet a female sculptor before, far less influence the work of one. I am quite excited to meet Leela Pieris who is making a sculpture of my dad who passed away last year. He was an eminent lawyer in Sri Lanka, and she is in the process of making his bust which will be dedicated and displayed in the law library.
My mom, sister, cousin and I are here because she has completed a clay model of my dad, the first stage of the process of making a bronze casting. This is our best opportunity to comment on what she has done and make changes.
The side view of the sculpture seems to resemble my dad, but looking more closely at the features of this model I feel they need some alteration. My eyes are drawn to the mouth which I feel is down turned and needs a bit of adjustment. The rest join in and we comment on his eyes, his moustache, his hairline, ...and I laugh wondering what my dad would say if he could see us now! My dad was always very fastidious about his appearance so we take this task of immortalising his image for posterity very seriously.
“is his nose too big?”
“Is his moustache too straight?”
We take each feature apart and analyse it critically. I had never looked at each of my dad’s features in such detail and it is a strange experience.
Leela Pieris explains the complex process of making a bronze sculpture to us. The first step is to build a clay model which is constructed around an armature, a metal skeleton which supports it. Plaster of Paris is then applied around the clay and allowed to set. The clay is then removed, and a layer of wax applied around it. The wax is painted on to the exact thickness of the bronze sculpture. Then another mixture of plaster of paris, ludo and grog (technical terms which I hope I got right) is applied so the wax is now sandwiched between two separate layers.
Once this is complete, it is now time to fire the mould. She has a kiln built into the ground where she does her firing. Due to space restrictions in the kiln this bust will be made in 3 pieces. As she lives in a residential neighbourhood her kiln is gas powered to avoid smoke pollution in the neighbourhood.
Firing the mould enables the wax to melt, leaving a space between the 2 layers of plaster of paris that will now be filled by molten metal. She explains how she makes her own metal composition. It consists of a mixture of copper (80%), brass (20%) and zinc (2%) which was originally referred to as gun metal in England.
The mould is put in the ground and molten metal poured into the cavity and allowed to set overnight. The layers of plater of paris around the metal are then broken, the metal cleaned with a mix of sulphuric acid and water and lastly a patina applied to get the required colour of the bust. We discuss colours for the final bronze sculpture and I suggest a similar colour to the Rodin sculptures.
I had no idea the process of making a sculpture was so complicated. She will take an entire year to finish the sculpture of my dad and my visit has enabled me to get a really good appreciation of how complex her craft is.
She explains to us it is rare for one artist to complete all 3 stages of a bronze casting. She is the only person involved in undertaking this complete process in Sri Lanka. She has trained in England and been involved in this craft since 1960 when she came back to Sri Lanka. Her life has been transformed by one experience in particular when she was commissioned to complete a double life size statue of Christ by the church. She tells us how she constructed this statue by studying the Turin Shroud. The statue is now displayed in a local church here in Sri Lanka.
After the statue was installed it was accidently damaged by a priest who had ordered it be painted black. Mrs Pieris was horrified to discover this and explains how she was instructed in a dream to ‘redeem the redeemer’! Cleaning a sculpture that is already installed is not an easy process. She described how she had to build a 40’ scaffolding and then cleaned and reapplied the patina on this statue and in the process reaffirmed her faith.
It was quite an amazing experience to be part of this process and I am looking forward to seeing the bronze casting take shape.