Susie Chisholm – For the Love of Sculpture

Sculptor Susie Chisholm
Sculptor Susie Chisholm

What happens if you are an artistic child of Savannah whose favorite summer pastime is climbing all over the sculpture in magnificent Brookgreen Gardens set among acres of coastal South Carolina natural landscape? While your cousins aren’t eager to join you, frolicking among the largest collection of American sculpture in an outdoor setting in the country is magical.
Sculptor Susie Chisholm was this young girl. Without realizing it at the time, this childhood experience gave her a love of sculpture. It just took her awhile to figure it out. And, while she did not start out to be a sculptor, she became a remarkable one. Her life-size bronze of Revolutionary War hero, Captain John Parker, The Minuteman, in the foyer of the Minuteman Theater inside the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, is a testament to her talent.

Final Captain Parker Sculpture
Captain John Parker in Minuteman Theater Entrance Foyer

The Modeling of a Sculptor
Talented, passionate, and driven to find her artistic niche, Susie was led to sculpture through a journey of personal discovery. Growing up in a home where artistic expression was valued, interest in art came naturally. Showing talent at a young age, art lesson were the norm. She painted well, but could not connect to it. She became a graphic designer, designing exhibits for Savannah Science Museum.

Still unsure of her artistic direction, she happened upon an ad in a Savannah newspaper for a portrait sculpture class. As memories of idyllic summers in Brookgreen flooded back, Susie realized she had always loved sculpture. She also recalled the emotional response she had to Michelangelo’s exquisite Pieta during a visit to the 1964 New York World Fair. The sensitive beauty and surreal quality of the marble composition, glowing alabaster-white under blue light, reinforced a nascent passion.

She tried the class to see if she had any talent for this three dimensional art form. After three lessons, Susie was hooked! Working with clay made sense to her, and it was fun! She wanted more. She checked out 27 books on sculpture from the library. She read them all. To better understand the evolution of her art form, she studied art history. A summer art program in Italy, where she experienced the architecture, sculpture, frescos, mosaics and paintings of Florence, Venice and all of the small hill towns in Tuscany, fueled her passion.

Susie continued to perfect her technique by attending sculpture workshops around the country, which she does to this day, both as student and teacher. During a memorable workshop in 1997 in Lucca, Italy, conducted by world-renown portrait and figure sculptor Paul Lucchesi, she persuaded the famous artist to hold a workshop in Savannah. This marked the beginning of her ongoing commitment to bring art workshops to Savannah, further enhancing the city’s position as a center for American artists.

Her professional career took hold when she donated her work to charitable auctions. People responded to the sensitivity of her pieces. Her ability to capture the most subtle details of ordinary people doing everyday things defines her work. Her sculptures tell a wordless story, conveying the emotion of a moment in time through facial expression, body language, the movement of the clothing. Commissions began coming in. Look no further than her work to understand why.

In The Garden II, a still-regal, genteel older woman in a shirtwaist dress, belted high in the way of women whose bodies shorten with age, sits in comfortable elegance in a rough-hewn rocker. In Waiting Game, the sultry Lowcountry air surrounds a young woman clothed in a light shift, as she sits languidly on a window ledge, gazing longingly off in the distance. Quiet Time captures a girl reading, relaxed, yet totally engaged in the story, legs tucked under her, unconsciously twirling her hair. The Runner is synchronized motion. Arms, legs, muscle, sinew, hair, clothes are captured in full stride. And, in every detail of his stance in The Minuteman, Capt. John Parker embodies the pride, honor, resolve, and strength of a new nation.

Studio Notes
Susie creates her sculpture in her studio in the Historic City Market area of downtown Savannah. All the work is done there until the piece is ready for casting. While she sculpts in all different sizes, she prefers to work in life-size pieces. For this diminutive woman, it can be a challenge!

A piece begins with precise measurements of size and proportion she takes of her models and from photos of her subject. These are translated into a 1″ PVC armature. Just as a human skeleton provides structure for soft tissue, the armature holds the weight of the clay as it takes shape. Once the body parts are properly positioned, foam is attached to fatten up the skeleton, minimizing the amount of clay used.

The Armature
The Armature

Next comes an aching week of heavy lifting! Spatula in hand, Susie removes hot, heavy, oil-based clay layered on cookie sheets from a special freezer case fitted with heating elements. She applies clay over the stick figure armature, bringing shape to the figure, stroke by stroke, layer by layer.

Fattening Up Captain Parker
Fattening Up Captain Parker

Her figure begins as an anatomically correct nude as the body parts must be clearly defined before clothes can be put on. The application of clothing is where Susie’s amazing talent differentiates her art. Big coils of clay are worked to fit the body. Attention is paid to the specific draping, wrinkling and folding characteristic of every type fabric in play in the piece to ensure it falls as it would naturally around a body engaged in a specific action. It’s an active process, one that has the artist moving around the three dimensional piece. Susie documents the model in one sitting. As the costumed model moves, the drapery moves, allowing her capture that one moment in time. It is also an evolutionary process. As Susie works the clay, the way she sees details evolves. As her perception evolves, so does her figure.

The Clay Goes On
The Clay Goes On

Next, a mold is created. Several coats of rubber are brushed onto the clay sculpture until the desired uniform thickness is reached. Several layers of plaster is then applied to form a mother mold over the rubber. The mother mold is removed from the original clay sculpture. Hot wax is poured in and out of the mold repeatedly until the proper thickness is formed inside. Once cooled, the mother mold is removed. The wax mold model is now a replica of the original clay sculpture, and the piece is ready for casting.

Getting The Anatomy Right
Getting The Anatomy Right

Johnny Mercer Has to Go!
Susie re-uses all the clay. When it came time to make life-size Capt. Parker, it was time to part with the clay from her most famous work to date, Savannah’s own, Johnny Mercer, whose original clay sculpture had been standing in her studio since the day the mold was removed. Johnny had to go! Although Susie enjoyed having him there, one of America’s most popular and successful songwriters was transformed into a Revolutionary War hero!

Getting The Wrinkles Right
Getting The Wrinkles Right

Since no photographs or drawings exist of Capt. Parker, Susie used the actor who played Parker in the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum’s stirring film, Let It Begin Here as her model. To absorb the details of Captain Parker’s historically accurate attire – the uniform, the weaponry, the powder horn, the munitions pouch – she spent time on location during the filming of the movie by Lionheart Productions, known for its scrupulous attention to historical authenticity. While on the set, Susie, and her brother Danny Grantham, documented everything in photographs. She studied details; she took measurements. She read; she researched. Through this process, 6-foot tall Capt. John Parker evolved from the hands of this remarkable 5’2″ sculptor.

First Coat of Rubber
First Coat of Rubber
Plastering Captain Parker
Plastering Captain Parker
Demolding the Rubber
Demolding the Rubber
Back To Clay Again
Back To Clay Again

Susie is presently at work in her studio creating a life-size Samuel Adams, the outspoken, persistent leader of the patriot rebellion in Boston. This latest work will be unveiled on December 16, 2012, at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum to commemorate the 239th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, the act of defiance that set the stage for the American Revolution.

View a series of videos of Susie Chisholm at work in the step by step process of creating Capt. John Parker for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum here: