Picnic Under the Wave

Styrofoam, fiberglass, automotive paint, plywood, steel, picnic table. H:8′ W:8′ D:12.’ 2009. With thanks to John Raulerson, Windham Graves, Tyler Dearing, Johnny Hunt, and our painter, Clint Shaw.

In late September of 2009, professor John Raulerson brought to his graduate sculptural installation class, an opportunity to represent the FSU graduate studio art program at the public art exhibition and symposium at Fort Pierce, Florida, Without Walls. John explained to us that the year long exhibition, curated by John Hays, has a long-standing reputation and would feature many well know artists. Furthermore, this would be the first time that universities participated. The site we had been offered was an eight by twelve foot concrete pad. The only suggestion John Hays had for us concerning the sculpture was that it might be nice if employees from the nearby courthouse could lunch there.

We were, of course, exited by the opportunity. The difficulty was that the deadline was enormously tight; with installation scheduled for early November, we had little over a month to design, fund, and produce a sculpture larger than any of us, except John, had ever attempted. John gave us a week to come up with proposals, at which point we would decide if any were worth the effort and distraction from our own work.

I was not much interested in the project myself, until it occurred to me idly that it might be amusing to sculpt a sort of Floridian, airbrushed t-shirt version of the famous Japanese wood-block print, Mt. Fuji off Kanagawa, breaking over a standard picnic table. Amusing, I mean, for a coastal Florida town. Picnic Under the Wave, call it. And it would fulfill the one suggestion made by the curator – people could lunch there, shaded beneath the crest of the wave.

I was convinced, however, that it would be impossible to build such a thing by the specified deadline – until I mentioned the idea to a classmate, Windham Graves, who informed me that, though difficult, it was quite possible. We would simply sculpt it out Styrofoam, fiberglass it, and paint it. So I quickly modeled a scale maquette out of clay, presented the idea to the class, and we decided to give it a try.

The first priority was securing funding as quickly as possible. This was entirely new territory for me, and involved an alarming amount of talking to strangers on the phone, something I am not generally comfortable with.

But, having composed a detailed proposal and, with John and Windham’s assistance, an itemized budget, I presented the project to several potential funding sources, including the Graduate School and the Congress of Graduate Students, COGS. The next day I heard back from the graduate school, which had agreed to match any other funds we might be able to secure – we were half way there, but still had nothing. The following Monday I attended COGS’ monthly funding meeting, which fortuitously coincided with our request. I explained the project and, after some legal deliberation, it was approved. We had secured a budget of $3,675.00, in a little over three business days.

The four primary builders, Windham, Johnny Hunt, Tyler Dearing, and I, began the build by cutting the maquette into one-inch cross sections. We then traced the sections, scanned them, and scaled them for projection onto 4×8 foot half-inch plywood. Having cut out each cross-section, we framed them together with two-foot high sections across the body of the wave, then bolted this wooden framework to a grid of welded two-inch steel strips, two running the length of the sculpture and four the width.

The next step was to build up the Styrofoam body of the wave. We initially used wood glue as a fixative, but found that it took too long to dry, and, when it did, was too hard to sculpt. The fixative we eventually settled on was Great Stuff expanding foam, which, though not particularly good for sculpting, allowed us to easily add pieces of Styrofoam as needed.

After building up the body of the wave, I began sculpting using an electric chainsaw, angle grinder, 30 grit sanding cloth and, for the froth, a wire brush attachment for a hand drill. Having completed the body, we then added the front portion of the wave and I sculpted that. In total, sculpting took about eleven 12-14 hour days. We filled twenty 33-gallon trash bags with Styrofoam detritus.

Next, we spray-glued aluminum foil to the entire surface of the sculpture to serve as a barrier coat so that the polyurethane resin wouldn’t melt the polystyrene foam (this suggestion courtesy of Collin Christian, a sculptor who works in Styrofoam and fiberglass). We then moved the sculpture outside and began fiberglassing.

This was the most difficult and time-consuming portion of the build as, though both John and Windham were somewhat familiar with fiberglass, none of us were experts, and the shapes we were attempting to cover, particularly the froth, were problematically convoluted. The majority of the sculpture received two layers of glass. This phase of the build took approximately two weeks. When the glassing was done, we painted the entire sculpture with mixture of Bondo and resin, a concoction conceived of by Windham. This Bondo-paint, as we called it, proved enormously helpful in refining the surface of the wave, as it could be mixed thicker or thinner to fill deep or shallow depressions, or to smooth rough surfaces. It also meant that achieving the desired smoothness did not require sanding so deeply into the glass as to compromise the structural integrity of the skin. Had we another month to work, this method could have been used to achieve a perfect surface. As it was, we settled for smooth enough.

Having finished surfacing the wave, we moved it to the modified flatbed on which we would transport it, then primed and painted it. Priming and painting was accomplished entirely by our exceptionally skilled painter, Clint Shaw. The sculpture was completed in the second week of November, 2009.

Due to scheduling difficulties, we did not move the sculpture down to Fort Pierce until December tenth. Six of us went, including John, Windham, Johnny, Tyler, myself, and my wife. The trip took approximately seven hours.

The site for the sculpture had been moved to a more prominent location, a small park on the waterfront, which was pleasing. Positioning the sculpture, which weighs approximately 700 lbs, involved a series of moves and rotations, much like moving a new couch around your living room. Eventually, John Hays settled on a very good spot and we fitted the picnic table into the slots designed for that purpose. City workers bolted the sculpture in place, and we were done. We returned that night, another seven hours back to Tallahassee.