The Science of My Sculptures / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Before I ever pick-up a torch, I spend quite some time looking at my subjects from all angles,.. or if the subject is not something that I can study in-person, then I google images of my subject.  

This part of my creative process is a discovery phase. My goal is to identify the subject’s most distinctive quantity:  What would make the subject immediately recognizable if all one saw was a rudimentary silhouette drawing of it. Mother Nature’s matchless creations,  often have a few quintessential elements that set them completely apart from an evolutionary standpoint, andI don’t think it’s a coincidence that these often stir the emotions and are fun to represent in sculpture.

Usually, this amounts to just two or three key angles or shapes of specific body parts.  If I can get these absolutely right, people make an instant connection to the piece and almost always marvel at the feeling. A good example of what I mean can be seen in one of my very earliest sculptures: The Vulture. (I think it was my third piece.)  

You can see from this photo that I’ve worked hard to get three things absolutely right:


1.     Long, well-spread flight feathers on the wing-tips. This is an important feature of the vulture’s essential ability to soar for hours in search of carrion. A soaring vulture spreads its primary feathers so that each acts as a small, high-aspect-ratio wing. This reduces turbulence at the wingtips and lowers the stall speed (allows for slower, nearly effortless soaring),helping the bird to stay aloft circling slowly in thermals (columns of rising warm air).

2.     Long, S-curved neck extending from hunched shoulders and featherless head.  This combination of adaptations helps the vulture thrust it’s head into a scrum of other feeding vultures or inside the body cavities of rotting large animal carcasses. There are no feathers on the head and neck of most vulture species and this helps keep them cleaner. Other raptors catch living prey that is small. Their feathers stay neat and relatively clean.

3.     Heavy, thick, curved beak:  Makes a formidable tool for tearing off chunks of rotting flesh quickly, in competition with many other scavengers at one time.

When I was 13, my family visited the Kalahari Dessert and we had the good fortune to watch vultures for hours and hours.  Here are some photos that my sister took, that I used as my study for this sculpture:  


As I continue on my effort to work in the intersection between Science and Art,  one thing that’s for sure is that this strategy of studying before sculpting will sharpen my powers of observation. After years and years of this, I might get quite good at it!