Saturday Studio: Trick or Treat

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

Imagine walking into a museum and seeing a cardboard box full of letters, postcards, and other writing accoutrements. You might walk right by before remembering that you’re in a museum, and such everyday objects don’t usually grace our pedestals. Take a closer look…

Sylvia Hyman, American, 1917-2012. Arrived by Post. Stoneware and porcelain, 2004. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2006.15. Images courtesy of FWMoA.

Believe it or not, every element of this sculpture is made from clay! We know this form of visual trickery as “trompe l’oeil,” a term we explored around this time last year; and, as we again enter this season of tricks and treats, there is no better time to revisit the work of master of deception Sylvia Hyman.

Hyman worked as an art teacher for over 30 years in the Nashville, Tennessee area. It wasn’t until age 40 that she began working with clay, becoming a full-time ceramicist in the 1970s. Although she’s now best-known for her trompe l’oeil sculptures like Arrived by Post, she didn’t begin creating them until 1995 and continued the series even as she became legally blind later in life (with the aid of assistants). What compelled Hyman to recreate everyday objects? It was a way to push her skills to the next level, while drawing our attention to things we might otherwise ignore. She was particularly drawn to objects made from paper, preserving what might soon be obsolete. The double-take you might have when encountering her work was precisely her goal, first tricking her viewers then prompting a true sense of wonder upon further inspection: how did she do that?

The devil is in the details! Much like drawing from life but in three dimensions, creating a believable trompe l’oeil sculpture requires astute skills of observation. Hyman meticulously thinned the edges of her clay postcards to mimic real paper, and even developed a technique to recreate the construction method of cardboard for the most true-to-life results. Want to test your observational skills and trick friends and family with your own trompe l’oeil sculpture? Make your own air-dry clay from household ingredients with the recipe below, and get to work!

Clay ingredients (makes about 3 cups of clay, can half for smaller amounts):

  • 1 cup cornstarch
  • 2 cups baking soda
  • 1.5 cups water

Combine the cornstarch and baking soda in a saucepan, then add the water, stirring to break up any lumps (it will be very thin at this stage).

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and pulls away from the side of the pan.

Transfer to an airtight container to cool.

Now, choose an object to replicate! The more mundane, the better: maybe a kitchen tool, a toothbrush, a piece of fruit…I settled on a paintbrush! You don’t need clay-specific tools, but if your object is textured, you might look for tools around your house that can help mimic it (maybe rolling your clay on a piece of fabric). I just used a butter knife and a toothpick to scratch details into my paintbrush.

After constructing your sculpture, let it dry fully (this might take a day or so, and the clay is quite fragile before it’s totally dry). Add color with paint or markers!

Here are some tips for constructing and decorating your sculpture:

  • Keep your object close by so you can replicate the size and details as close as possible.
  • Include as many details as you can (within reason): I didn’t have faith in my hand-lettering abilities to fully label my paintbrush, but adding just the number “12” added sufficient believability.
  • Mimic the construction method of the actual object: for example, I added a rolled-out strip of clay to create the ferrule (the metal part) of my paintbrush.
  • The clay can be smoothed and joined with a bit of water.
  • Avoid totally flat areas of color: adding a bit of variation or reflections on shiny surfaces looks more realistic.

Now, for the true test: once your sculpture is fully dry, leave it around your house and see if your family members try to use it, or walk right past! Did you succeed in your trickery?

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