The Science of My Sculptures / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

As with all my sculptures, this one started with a few Key pieces of scrap metal that just “told me” what they needed to become: The profile of the Saw (that is the head) determined the emotion of the bird. The well pump handle and mechanism (that forms the neck and body) determined the scale of the piece, and the pitch forks (that make the feet) inspired my thoughts on the movement I wanted to communicate. After I had those quintessential elements, I went to my scrap metal supplies and found the rest!

But 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, and I 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 my Dancing Crane sculpture. 

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


  1. Head/ beak: The crane has a very long thin beak that it uses to catch fish and other small water creatures for food. I was very important to get this head to beak ratio correct to have my sculpture pass as a crane. 
  2. Long, S-curved neck extending from a rather small body mass is the next quintessential  trait. In the sculpture I used an old water pump handle that had the perfect amount of curve to it. 
  3. The next trait is the cranes large feet. All water birds have large feet and it was important to get the size and proportions right. 

In the context of the dancing crane I might as well explain a bit about the animal and why it dances…

The Sand hill crane lives all over the mid west of north America and dance as part of there mating ritual. Sand hill cranes mate for life. When a pair bonds, it can last for years until one of the cranes dies. But unlike some birds who do not mate again after a mate passes away, the surviving crane will seek out a new mate.

In the early spring, as sand hill cranes are migrating to their breeding grounds and single cranes will try and find mates. A pair of sand hill cranes calls to each other in unison to create a bond. When the pair reaches the northern breeding grounds, they mate and build a nest. Cranes build a ground nest out of plant materials and the pair will take care of the nest together until the little ones hatch. It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch and over two months for the chicks to be independent.  In the fall, the juvenile sand hill cranes migrate south with their parents.  After two years, the juvenile sand hill cranes reach sexual maturity and begin the search to find their own mates.

During mating, sand hill cranes will dance. The dancing is most common in the breeding season, but cranes can dance all year long if they feel like it. The dance involves wing flapping, bowing, jumps and simply playing around. They might also throw a stick or some plants into the air. 

The reason I places the crane in this rather specific position was actually more to do with my subconscious than from reference photos. When I was little on of my favorite books was called Olga the Brolga, it told the tale of a young sand hill crane who desperately wants to dance but has no partner. Coincidentally, the position I placed the crane is a near exact match to one of the positions Olga dances in in the book! Go subconscious.  

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!