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Art in 3 dimensions

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Goode sculptor got started with wood

By John Barnhart

    From the time he was a young man, Joe Collins has always loved art, with an interest in three-dimensional art forms.

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    “They were so expensive I thought, ‘I can’t afford them, so I’ll make them,’” Collins said.
    So, he became a sculptor.
    “I started out carving wood 35 years ago,” he said.
    Wood was a logical medium for Collins. He has a master’s degree in Forestry from Duke University and worked for Westvaco Corporation, a paper manufacturer, for 40 years in land management.
    “I had responsibility for all the forest lands in Virginia when I was here,” he said.
    His first wood sculpture was carved from a piece of American Chestnut that he salvaged from an old house. Collins had the opportunity to do this because Westvaco bought up a number of old farms and reforested them. When the company did that, it demolished the farm houses. When that happened, Collins was on the lookout for American Chestnut in logs or beams in the houses and salvaged them.
    He shifted to bronze 15 years ago.
    Collins said that bronze is actually a more forgiving medium. If he made a mistake while carving wood, he had to find some way to work around it. If he makes a mistake while making the clay model that will be used to cast a bronze sculpture, he just rubs it out.
    The sculptures he makes focus on Plains Indians and six of his works are currently featured as part of an exhibit at the Bower Center.
    “I was always fascinated by American Indians,” he said.
    His sculptures on display at the Bower Center are all real people who lived in the 19th century. He’s studied photos made of these individuals and knows who they were. He’s also spent time in museums studying Plains Indian artifacts, as well as studying books of photos. He sculpts their faces, clothing and ornaments in fine detail.
    “I like to make them as authentic as I can,” he said.
    One fascinating sculpture is a of a Pawnee chief named  Petalasharo. Petalasharo was one of several Indians who President James Monroe invited to the White House in 1821. While there, he performed a native dance and the wife of of the French Ambassador sketched him while he did it and captured all the details. Collins based his sculpture on a photo of the sketch.
    Collins said that one special fact about Petalasharo is that he stopped human sacrifice in his tribe. According to Collins, twice every year the Pawnee would sacrifice a young woman who they would capture from another tribe. Both Petalasharo and his father opposed the sacrifices.
    “That was part of the reason he was invited to Washington,” said Collins.
    The large sculpture of Angelic, a Flathead Indian woman, shows the detail in her cape. It’s beaded with a porcupine quill section. To make this, he stuck actual porcupine quills and 5,000 beads to the clay model.
    Collins makes his sculptures using the lost wax method, a process that Collins said dates back to the ancient Greeks.
    The sculpture starts out as a clay model. This model is coated with rubber to make a master mold that is coated with plaster. A master mold makes it possible to cast multiple copies. Hot wax is poured into the master mold producing a wax duplicate of the original model. The wax model is then coated with a ceramic shell that produces a mold that will withstand heat. The wax is lost in this process. This ceramic mold also includes a funnel that will allow molten bronze to be poured in and tubes that will allow air to escape while that is happening.
    Molten bronze, at a temperature of between 2,000 and 2,200 degrees is poured in. Once the bronze cools, the ceramic mold is broken to remove the sculpture.
    Bronze sculptures are often cast in parts which are welded together after being cast. Angelic’s long braids, for example, were cast separately and welded on. Ridges left by welding are ground off with a grinder.
    Colors on Collins’ sculptures are a patina. To make the patina, the bronze is heated with a blowtorch and chemicals are applied. They react with the hot bronze and the color is created.
    Collins can also do something while the bronze is warm that will result in a shiny surface, if that’s what he desires. He waxes it with furniture wax.
    Now, he’s trying something different — something that is closer to his original. He’s working on a soapstone sculpture. Like woodcarving, sculpting in stone involves cutting everything away that doesn’t look like your subject.
    Collins lives in Goode. He first came here 20 years ago and lived for 11 years in Lynchburg until Westvaco moved him elsewhere. When he retired, he came back.