Not All Cows Are Made Alike / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

The Cow Bicycle Rack was my eleventh piece and it was completed one week before I graduated from the 8th grade.  The BNM Library is next door to my elementary schoolin Fairfield Vermontand it desperately needed a place for kids and families to put their bicycles. This was my most complex work at that point because of the need for this sculpture to be painted. (My normal “junkyard metal” medium would have been dangerous and dirty for cyclists to brush up against.)  It was also complex because I had to build it in my studio, then de-construct it, and then re-construct it at the site.

If you read my blog on the making of my Vulture sculpture, you know that before I begin a project, I do a great deal of study to find the quintessential elements in form will make my sculpture represent my subject in a seemingly effortlessly yet spot-on way. This habit of looking for the key angles, parts or properties that make something unique is a science and an art, not unrelated to the way a scientist goes about problem-solving and an great artist goes through a preparation process. (Again we are at the intersection of Science and Art.)

Much like the vulture piece, my dairy cows were meticulously researched so that the dairy breed was obvious. Like the vulture - that could be mistaken for any large raptor species of bird if I wasn’t very careful - there were a few absolutely key elements needed in order to make the sculpture really look and feel like a small herd of dairy cows.  The right type of cow was important. The town I live in, Fairfield, is the center of Vermont’s dairy production. Here’s what I mean:  

On the top left is a dairy cow (a photo I took in a meadow by my house) and to the right is a beef cow. At first glance they seen practically identical, but in order to get the essence of an animal one must look at the details.

1.     The Back: The back of a meat cow is straight as a board, with barley any dips or bumps. However, the back of a dairy cow is lightly more curved just ahead of the hips. If you look closely you can see why: the back of the dairy cow curves down right above the udders. The immense weight of the udders in diary cows causes the back to bend slightly, a distinction that is very important when making a sculpture of silhouettes.

2.     The Head, Neck and Boney Framework: The beef cow is bred for its muscle, therefore the skin is tighter and tends to fold less around the neck and legs. The dairy cow however, is bred for its milk production, not muscle, resulting in the skin tending to be more wrinkly and loose around its joints and neck. In person, you will usually note the boney appearance of even the best fed dairy cow- the hip bones protrude a bit and their legs look spindly in combination with their girth – because those bones primarily a scaffolding to support that huge milk bag like a sling. The beef cow’s head is help higher than it’s back, whereas the dairy cow’s head is another suspended part of that bony frame, below the height of the shoulders.

3.     The Udder: The difference in udders is the more obvious of the four distinctions, but no less important. The dairy cow has a very large udder, of course, and this is a very important part of making the silhouette look accurately like a dairy cow. In contrast the beef cow has a very small udder and using this type of cattle as a model would have been disastrous.

4.     The Girth: The last distinction in silhouette is the distance from the top of the back to the bottom of the stomach. Beef cows have a longer horizontal line to their torso, in the torso because they are bred to be lean and muscular. In dairy cows however, the girth is much larger.

Dairy cows have just become our milk producing factories and therefore must eat massive amounts of food. This necessitates the up-sizing of their digestive system that includes 4 stomachs doing a massive amount of fermentation.

If I do say so myself, I think I got those elements right on the money. In fact, I have had many people tell me that the first time they saw the sculpture from afar, they thought it really was a small herd of cows that had gotten out and were wandering by the library.

Here are some pictures of the process of making this sculpture from start to finish…

   First, I photographed some local cows. Spent hours sketching them and created this little scale model of the sculpture that was about the size of a shoe box, complete with little scale bicycles. This gave the library committee some food for thought and helped me sell the idea to them. It also allowed me to play with the scale of the cows to the scale of a bicycle.

Then I used a projector to trace the forms on some 6′ by 6′ sheets of eighth inch steel.  I had to use my plasma cutter to carefully cut out the silhouettes. I had one chance to get it right!

 Then I had to prepare the metal for painting – grind off the sharp edges, polishing, and then priming. That took and excruciatingly long time.

Finally, I painted.  The fabrication to that point took about 35 hours.

 I had the sculpture temporarily put together in my studio and then we had to de-construct it in order to move it to its final site at the library. This was a MUCH bigger undertaking than I had imagined so we have since acquired a beat-up old boom truck. (… My request for my 16th birthday present).  It has inspired me to make a few more HUGE pieces for local institutions that I will call my “Novel AND Useful Public Art” collection.

Again, I continue on my effort to work in the intersection between Science and Art. This was a great design challenge with many constrains.  One thing that’s for certain is that this strategy of studying before sculpting is sharpening my powers of observation.