Top Tips From The Experts When Transporting Sculptures

I recently came across this really interesting article about the implications and horror stories of having artworks damaged and broken from being transported from one place to another. This is very real for so many artists who say the most worrying part of exhibitions is the packing and transportation of their pieces, hoping that nothing goes wrong with their prized possessions. I hope you enjoy the read.

Tips From Sculptors When Shipping Models to Foundries

Artwork may get panned by critics, defaced by vandals and crazy people or just ignored by everyone, but sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a work of art is moving it. Things fall off the side of a truck and break, the prongs on a forklift impale an object in shipping crates, an object is shipped or stored upside down or on its side affecting its balance, another object is warehoused for some period of time in a damp warehouse leading to mold or rust. Fill in the blank with your own horror story.

Perhaps even more worrisome is transporting a maquette, for instance to a foundry for enlargement and casting or to some agency or individual in order that the design is approved as part of a commission agreement. “Things come in needing to be fixed all the time,” said Mitchell Meisner, president of Meisner Art Casting in Farmingdale, New York. “We try to touch it up from photographs, or we’ll bring the sculptor in to try to make it right.” Often, Meisner is so convinced that the maquette won’t make it to the foundry in reasonable shape that he sends a moldmaker to the artist’s studio to take care of that part of the job there, or he will go to the studio to pack and drive the model back to Farmingdale himself. “I’ll drive like an 80-year-old grandmother, but I’ll bring it here in good condition.”

Sending a maquette is one of the riskiest activities for sculptors, and they take a range of approaches to this part of their job. “I try to get clients to come to my studio,” Loveland, Colorado bronze wildlife sculptor Dan Ostermiller said, or “I try to get a client to give preliminary approval through photographs.” Boaz Vaadia of Brooklyn, New York goes a step further, emailing PhotoShop images of how a proposed sculpture will look on site to those commissioning his work. “I’m asking people to totally trust me and to trust my creative process. If someone insists that I bring a maquette to them, I don’t do it. They have to trust me.”

Both Ostermiller and Vaadia make the molds for their sculptures in their studios under the warehouse lighting, which they then send on to foundries, as they are reluctant to ship maquettes. “So many problems can happen,” Vaadia noted. When he has transported a maquette, Ostermiller drives it himself (“a couple hundred miles at most”), taking along a companion who holds onto the crated model for the entire trip. Bathroom and meal breaks are kept to a minimum, because plasticine may melt in the heat, so “you can’t leave it in a hot car for a long time – you need the air-conditioning going the whole time.” (Or, kept at a moderate temperature if traveling during the winter, since clay and plasticine become brittle in the cold.) No less worrisome is hitting a pothole or a curb, which can loosen the model’s armature from the base. More often, if he needs to drive the maquette, Ostermiller casts it first in plaster at his studio, again hoping that the car ride is smooth so that no cracks develop in the plaster.

Vanessa Hoheb, who works with artists at Polich Tallix foundry in Rock Tavern, New York, recommended that artists “transfer their clay or wax” models into plaster or some harder material before shipping them off, calling clay and wax maquettes “an accident waiting to happen.”

A lot of things can go wrong, requiring sculptors to think about how their work will be protected from the very start. That starting point is often the armature, which must be sturdy, but then comes the packing and crating Shredded newspapers, Styrofoam “peanuts,” bubble wrap, blankets, spray foam insulation or Ethafoam all may provide protection, allowing the maquette to “float” in a crate and not touch any of the sides that can be bumped during transport. Hoheb noted that bubble wrap may leave an impression on the surface of the maquette, requiring that the artwork first be wrapped in paper, and she recommended that the density of the wrapping material increase as one moves out from the maquette towards the sides of the crate.

The larger and heavier the crate, the more expensive the shipping. John Henry, a sculptor of large-scale abstract steel pieces in Chattanooga, Tennessee, noted that he pays $150-250 to pack, crate and ship his maquettes to the people who commission his work for their approval (“I don’t live where most people don’t come by to look at the piece”). His models are made from machined aluminum, wrapped in soft blankets and then surrounded by bubble wrap when packed in a cardboard box, which is next put in a larger wooden crate with more bubble wrap between the two boxes. Everything he has shipped out has arrived in good condition, and the only problems have arisen “when people return things to me, because they don’t take as much time packing everything carefully.”

Mitchell Meisner also is an advocate for double boxing maquettes, adding that the outer box always should be wood, because “cardboard also gets thrown around and dropped, and things get handled a lot better when they are in a wooden crate.” After the artwork is placed in the crate, the top side should be fastened not with nails, since the hammering may jar the sculpture that the box is intended to protect, but with screws. It is also wise to place skids under the bottom of the crate, in order that the prongs of a forklift can get underneath the box, and write “TOP” on the crate in order that it be transported properly (placing some sort of ornament on top as well might make even clearer to movers which side is up and which down).

Another artist who regularly ships her maquettes is Philadelphia sculptor Mary Sand. Driving her models to the foundry isn’t an option for her, since for reasons of lower cost she uses the Berkeley, California foundry Artworks, although some of those savings do get eaten up by the expense of shipping, which can reach $325 and higher. She applies three layers of rubber around the model, “which keeps the clay protected and gets the process of mold making started,” and then blows foam around the whole thing in the wooden crate.

At times, she surrounds the rubber with bubble wrap and then the blown-in insulation. There haven’t been any problems but, “when it’s a complicated piece, I still get worried.” At that point, she flies out to California with the crated work, booking an additional seat on the airplane for the crate, although if it is a small work “I might be able to put it in the overhead bin.” The worry then transfers to airport security, which generally wants to have the maquette unwrapped in order to look at the clay and armature (“do they think I’ve worked this hard just to blow it up?”). That adds to the time it takes to get through the airport, but so far there haven’t been any missed flights or damage during the unpacking and repacking. Airport security people just look and don’t touch, knock on wood. No one ever said that being an artist is worry-free.

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