Many years back, I was drawn to the writing of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who grew up near the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri. In those days, about the most exciting thing to happen for a young boy on a given day was the arrival of the river’s big steam boats to the town docks. Every boy in town dreamt of becoming a river boat pilot, one of the highest earning and most prestigious careers of that time. While other boys dreamed, Sam Clemens acted!
Young Sam hitched a ride on a steamboat and was later befriended by a highly regarded river boat pilot, who taught him to read the ever-changing ebbs and flows of the mighty Mississippi. Soon Sam mastered the impossible task of knowing the river like the back of his hand – literally! This greatly enriched his life experience and eventually contributed much to Mark Twain’s volume “Life on the Mississippi”.
I would have to say, at least at this point in my life, it’s one of my favorite books, and perhaps a very close second to Twain’s entertaining, “Roughing It”. I’m attracted to how these semi-autobiographical stories capture very closely, in his own unique rich and humorous style, what every day life was like in those days in and around the Big River and out in the Wild West, where Twain later traveled with his brother. What I read gave me a better idea of what it must have been like to be living in a typical small town back then. His writing style makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, as if you’re right there, clearly seeing each colorful detail just as Twain is living it. He gives an idea how now-familiar small towns grew into major metropolitan cities.
I found I was quickly captivated by his writing style, with its historical accounts mixed with amusing anecdotes and downright laughable situations. I LOVE his sense of humor and the way he conveys a situation, often mixed with a large dose of truth-stretching, but in a very charming and captivating way. He’s got an interesting way of down-playing his own view of himself, while writing with an author’s hubris. I was intrigued and wanted to get a better idea of his character and personality by reading more of his work and about his life story.
Having only sculpted colorful critter-cartoon-character like pieces up to that point, I thought a colorful, mustachioed character like him would be fun to sculpt - or maybe at least to practice on - as my very first attempt at sculpting a real human figure in polymer clay. And so I began to “doodle” in clay, to make a six-inch tall bust of Twain, just for fun. I figured I would put it away in the back of a shelf, to look back on and laugh at later on.
I downloaded lots of photos of Twain and was even lucky enough to find some profile shots – which makes sculpting facial proportions much easier. Over the three or four months I toiled over this piece, I just felt I had to keep at it because I knew I could get a closer likeness. ARGHH! I worked a re-worked every one of his features so many times that I think I’m now more familiar with Mark Twain’s nose than even his own mother! [With apologies to Mrs. Clemens!]
It seems like in every one of the photos of him he looks like a serious and “author-like” character. But rather than those textbook expressions, I wanted to try to capture how Twain might look if he was slightly amused; as if he was thinking of a funny story he was about to tell. I really wanted to capture a hint of “Grandpa Twain”, with a twinkle in his eye. Even with the aid of the photos, I had to use my imagination to create his smile lines and eye creases.
And as I progressed, somewhere in the process, I concluded that maybe it wasn’t just a practice piece after all. Yup, this one’s a keeper!
For those interested in the more technical side of this piece… I made it entirely in natural colors of polymer clay, even his clothing, rather than all one color clay. I wanted the realism, and also to take on the challenge of series-baking the different layers and colors of clay. This included fashioning separate realistic looking eyes with materials at hand, which I made out of pearl-style beads. His suit is of Granitex clay and his face is of Super Sculpey, which darkened a lot while curing, and made him come out of the oven looking a little too “tanned”, even for a rugged outdoors-man like Twain! The inner core is armature wire, foil and Sculpey Ultralight clay, set onto a sturdy nail. Not real impressed with this use of the fragile Ultralight, but it was a good test, I guess.