Gaia Article from Register Guard

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BY BOB KEEFER The Register-Guard


Sculptor Dora Natella races an impossible deadline to breathe life into a three-quarter-ton, clay-and-bronze goddess 

FOR DORA NATELLA, the letter came as the kind of break many artists only dream about. 

A Eugene sculptor and University of Oregon art professor, Natella had been in a quandary. A talented mid-career artist, the single mother of a 5-year-old boy, she faced unemployment at the end of the academic year because the university had decided not to renew her teaching contract. She was feeling desperate, down on her luck, frustrated with life and art. She even considered moving home to Venezuela. 

Then came the letter. Pier Walk 2000 - a pricey, prestigious national sculpture show in Chicago - asked her to submit work for an outdoor exhibit that would open this month. 

Pier Walk was the kind of show, Natella realized, where she might be able to sell a single sculpture for $100,000 or even more. That kind of money certainly would ease the financial strain. 

But even more, selling a big sculpture in a big city could mark her emergence as an independent artist, an artist who could live off her own work, free of the need for teaching jobs and grants. It could be a turning point in her life. 

Natella said "yes" in an instant. She would submit "Gaia," a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of the Earth goddess, a woman's figure shown in two views with willow branches woven around her: a heroic statue done in traditional materials with a slightly postmodern sensibility. 

She had only one problem. The statue didn't exist. 

Although she had cast "Gaia" in bronze as a 3-foot model, or maquette, she hadn't built the full-scale statue. She couldn't afford to. She didn't have her own studio. She didn't have a foundry. She had little money for materials. She had never, in fact, built a monumental bronze sculpture. 

And installation for Pier Walk 2000 would take place the first week in May, just two months away. In Chicago. 

Sculpting from scratch

As spring break began in late March, Natella, who lives in Eugene with photographer Sean Poston, moved tools and clay into Fifth Street Photographic, a photo studio where Poston is a partner. 

Amid the studio's more conventional operations, she welded an armature - a skeleton - out of rebar, strengthened by cross pieces of wood. It would have to be strong enough to support the more than 1,000 pounds of modeling clay she would use to make the statue. 

Mounted on a 6-foot-wide circular base, Gaia would be a woman and a half - literally. The statue would show two closely related images of the same form, almost like a double exposure caught in bronze. The 8-foot-tall human figure would be surrounded by interwoven willow branches, also cast in bronze, as though the plants were growing from her body. 

Classically trained in Italy, Natella is an exquisite sculptor of the human form. 

"I mostly use the female figure," she said. "It addresses women's issues. The female figure, for me, is usually the female nude or the human body, nude. So the human body in one way or another always provokes responses, especially in a more puritan-type public." 

Over the next two weeks, she and Poston worked every day until 2 or 3 a.m., stopping only for meals across the street at the Wild Duck restaurant. Her son, Andrea, played with Legos and tried to avoid being too much underfoot. 

"We got him a new Lego toy every day," Natella said. "And he watched a lot of videos." 

Gradually "Gaia" took shape: massive, serene, lifelike in the damp, gray clay. Although Natella was working from the maquette, making a larger copy of an existing work, the enormous woman she built of clay in the photo studio seemed a new creature entirely, one with her own distinct presence. 

"She's Junonic!" Natella said with a laugh one afternoon in the studio. And indeed she was: large, stolid, built somewhat like Natella herself, with wide hips, large breasts, feet that seemed to grip the ground. Not a fashion model. 

"She's an opulent type of woman," the sculptor said. 

The clay itself seemed alive, charged, startling to touch. 

"I love clay," Natella said. "I didn't want to use plasticine. It's somewhat artificial, and it's stiff and hard to push around. 

"Clay is responsive. It responds to the push and pull of your hands, and it's a very moist and sensuous material." 

As Natella was sculpting, she was also planning an entire campaign. She phoned foundries to talk about casting the new "Gaia" in bronze. 

Impossible, she was told. Not enough time. She picked up more than a hint of sexist condescension: "You naive woman," was the subtext of many conversations. 

A foundry finally gave her a price: $50,000. It might as well have been $5 million. 

Meanwhile, the naive woman also had to plan transportation. The statue, weighing 1,500 pounds, would have to be in Chicago on May 8. A shipping company quoted her a price of $1,700, but it would have to be packed and ready to go on May 1. A full week on the road cut deeply into manufacturing time. She passed. 

It was all too much money, too much time, too much trouble. It began to look like "Gaia" would never be born. 

Then along came Dean Allison and Rich Pakkala. 

Allison, a sculptor from Colorado, recently moved to Winston, in Douglas County, where he started his own foundry. Natella found his phone number in a newsletter. He could make a casting of "Gaia" for more like $15,000, as long as Natella could do her own finishing work: welding the pieces together, finishing the seams, applying the patina - the final, colored finish. 

Natella knew she wasn't going to beat that price. She took out a second mortgage on her home, told Allison to go ahead and began to figure out how she and Poston could drive the statue to Chicago themselves. 

Feat of clay

Making a bronze statue is an indirect process. 

Once she had "Gaia" fully modeled in clay at the photo studio in Eugene, Natella covered the clay with Vaseline and plastic wrap, in part to keep the clay moist and in part because she liked the texture it all gave to the goddess' skin. Once cast in bronze, the plastic wrap would give her skin a vegetative look: loose and flowing. 

To turn her into bronze, Natella painted the clay statue with layers of latex rubber, which hardened into a flexible mold, one section at a time. Then she covered each section of rubber with plaster, to give it a firm backing. 

Each section had to be planned so it was possible to remove the mold from the clay, meaning "Gaia" would be cast in many separate bronze pieces and then welded back together. 

At the foundry in Winston, Allison and his crew painted the inside of each rubber section with hot wax, building the brown wax up layer by layer until it was as thick as the bronze would need to be: about half an inch in the legs and feet, somewhat less in the statue's upper sections. 

Then each wax piece was popped out of its rubber mold, fitted with wax sprues, or molding channels, and dipped into a high-tech ceramic solution that would harden into a fireproof shell. Heat the ceramic shell and the wax pours out; you have a mold, ready to pour bronze into. 

Natella was nervous as she visited the foundry. Nothing could go wrong in the casting process. Each piece had to be perfect - or, at least, usable. There was no time, and no money, to cast anything a second time. 

The pieces were ready in mid-April. They looked like broken shards taken from an ancient ruin. 

Pakkala, a 40-year-old Eugene metal fabricator, met Natella through the photo studio. He was welding a metal stair rail there for Poston when he heard the artist say she needed willow branches to cast for a sculpture. He said his mom had some. They got to talking about the statue. 

Pakkala, who was about to leave Eugene to move to Florida, liked working with artists. He had time on his hands. He signed on to do the welding in exchange for a small sculpture of Natella's. 

"Gaia" was like no project he had ever taken on. "I've welded a few small bronzes before," he said. "Nothing like this." 

The statue arrived from the foundry in 21 pieces, not counting the bronze willow-branch sections, which looked like dozens of pieces of scrap metal in several cardboard boxes. 

The pieces were laid out in borrowed warehouse space off Garfield Street, at a place where another volunteer laborer, David Caldwell, worked his day job. Poston brought in a welding machine he'd found used for $700. 

The warehouse foreman asked, a little nervously, if they could try not to set the place on fire. But he let them work there night after night for free. 

Natella welded branches. Pakkala set to work on the body parts - and discovered they didn't fit. Each piece had warped slightly in the casting process; some of the gaps between pieces were half an inch wide. 

Pakkala, who is used to working on precision machinery, used a heavy sledge hammer to beat the statue back into shape. He and Poston wedged and levered and jacked "Gaia" into submission. 

Each piece, Pakkala said, must have been picked up and put down at least 50 times. 

"It took us four hours just to line the arm up and tack it on. Fitting it together was the ultimate challenge. We had to come up with things to pull and pry. It was pretty distorted." 

In the final week, the unrelenting hours began to drain everyone. Tempers frayed. Tools broke. 

Some days, Natella and Poston and Pakkala and Caldwell seemed barely able to speak to one another, but they kept working side by side. Andrea ran amuck in the warehouse, his face streaked black with grease and dust. 

Then Natella broke her leg. Turning off the radio late one night, she jumped down off a stack of lumber and tumbled, fracturing a bone in her lower leg. 

Poston took her to the emergency room for a splint. It was just one more chore, another four-hour delay, like fixing the steering belt that one night came loose from the forklift, stranding them for hours. 

On crutches, Natella was back at work the next day. 

As "Gaia" grew, her creators seemed caught in the eternal struggle between male and female. Natella would slump on her crutches and use a felt tip pen to mark a flat spot. 

"This isn't auto body work," she would say, a little cross. "Human bodies are round. We need more metal here." Male eyes would roll in annoyance, but they would make the correction. 

For her part, Natella made sharp fun of the macho men and their greasy tools. Somehow, they all stayed friends. 

A day later, while Natella hobbled around, "Gaia" got to her feet. Pakkala and Poston lifted her into place on the circular bronze base and bolted and welded her down. 

The goddess stood at last, her skin gleaming unevenly, the weld marks looking like giant surgical scars across her body. 

The final leg

The clock ticked. It was Thursday now, and Gaia was supposed to leave for Chicago that night. 

Under the latest plan, Pakkala and Poston's cousin, Zapata Lyder, would drive the statue - strapped upright onto an auto transport trailer - straight though to the Windy City, arriving, in theory, in time for Monday's installation. Caldwell would ride along for extra support. 

Natella and her son would fly to Chicago on Saturday morning. Poston, who had a wedding to photograph on Saturday, would fly in that night to join them. 

But on Thursday, space-suited with face shield and respirator, Poston was hosing down Gaia with a sandblaster in a parking lot outside the warehouse. Caldwell was feeding sand. 

The sky looked like rain might hit any minute, which would turn the sand to mud. The sandblaster sounded like a 747 taking off. Poston disappeared in a noisy cloud of dust. 

Just then, a strutting little man came up yelling. "Who authorized this?" the man demanded, threatening one and all. Apparently Gaia was sitting on the wrong side of an unmarked property line. 

With 20 minutes' work to go, Poston shut down the sandblaster, cleaned up the sand and tried desperately to imagine where he could go to finish the job. Just then, a friend of Caldwell's happened by. 

"I think you can take it to my boss's place," he said. They did, and then ran the now-gleaming Gaia through a do-it-yourself car wash for a quick bath before applying the final patina. 

That night, reinforcements entered the battle. Eugene mural painter Jim Evangelista, a student of Natella's, joined the labor force, spraying chemical solutions onto the statue and baking them on with large blowtorches. As usual, work ran late. 

The drivers were sent home to get some sleep. Natella and Caldwell worked into the morning, packing "Gaia" into protective foam rubber and tarps before shrink wrapping the entire thing and strapping it down to the trailer. 

The drivers left town Friday morning at 8:30. 

Chicago hope

Sunday evening, Natella was on her way by cab from a museum visit back to Chicago's downtown Motel 6, where she'd booked two rooms: one for her, Poston and Andrea, and one for the driving crew. As her cab pulled up to the motel, she saw it: "Gaia," still shrink wrapped, on the trailer, in front of the motel. 

With the exception of a few cracked branches, Gaia had made the trip intact, all 2,100 miles, through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and into Illinois. She survived a flat tire and a disintegrating trailer bearing that was still leaking metal scraps in the motel parking lot. 

"I can't believe I'm in Chicago!" Pakkala said. 

"Now we finally get to exhale," Natella said. 

"You can't believe how expensive this place is," said Poston, whose truck was broken into within hours and looted of tools. 

Natella and her crew installed `Gaia' last week in a highly visible location at the very entrance to the Navy Pier. Her debut got great early reviews. 

"People swarmed us when they saw what was underneath the covering," Pakkala said. "They said, `Wow, are you the artist?' ' 

Within hours, though, another setback struck: Exhibit promoters lost their nerve about showing a nude statue outside the entrance of the show. "Gaia" was moved from her prime location to a more discreet spot, inside the venue. 

As she got ready to head off for opening day festivities - black tie, very posh, very un-Eugene - Natella, still limping, $20,000 in debt, exhausted, thrilled beyond measure - struggled to get her bearings. 

"She's out there," the sculptor said. "She's installed. She's here in Chicago. ... I can't believe it. These guys made it all possible, and we're finally all here." 

Then she thought a moment. 

"Now all I have to do is sell it."