• Now that the clay model is dry, I really wanted to get a picture of it on the wall, so I used a hangar on the wall in my bedroom which formerly held a very heavy sculpture which is now on the wall in my gallery, it was just right for hanging this model on the wall for some photos.

  • Last bit on the Commodore Hotel Cornice Mask

    Now that the clay model is dry, I really wanted to get a picture of it on the wall, so I used a hangar on the wall in my bedroom which formerly held a very heavy sculpture which is now on the wall in my gallery, it was just right for hanging this model on the wall for some photos.

  • Christian Petersen

    I wanted to touch on the topic of this sculptor again after working my way through the book on him “Christian Petersen remembered,” specifically I wanted to address the part of the book where the author mentions that the various terracotta works were “refurbished” and repaired or restored around the 1980s after “40 years of exposure to the harsh Iowa climate” there was deterioration to the terracotta she stated.

    I find that very puzzling that these terracotta panels and sculptures were showing deterioration after only 40 years! I have had hundreds of pieces of architectural terracotta from the 1880s and 1890s that were on building facades  in New York City for 90 to 100 years and every single one of them was just as clear and crisp and pristine as the day they were installed!

    Other than coal soot staining,  bird droppings etc.,  the harsh New York City climate coupled with acidic rain from coal burning and later automobile exhaust had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the terracotta, it  did on carved stone however.

    In thinking about this further, we know from history that clay (terracotta) pots, shards of them (from being smashed) made by the ancient cultures, the Incas etc found in archaeology sites, in digs found in graves and under the dirt, these did not deteriorate.

    In fact, many may not be aware of it, but BRICKS are terracotta and I happen to have pictures of the perfect example of the point I want to make in this post today, here’s a couple of photos of an 1880s era brick storage building here that was built by the railroad to store dynamite in, the railroad is long gone, the depot was moved, the roundhouse was demolished many decades ago and all that remains is this little roughly 10 ft by 16 ft building, the roof long gone and a large tree growing up in the center of it.

    The first photo shows the surface on the inside of one wall, you can see how many bricks but not all have practically disolved into dust like sugar cubes that became wet, especially on the lower courses, but you can also see the bricks inside the wall are mostly in good shape while many of those on the outer course disolved away to dust and are gone;



    Compare now to the outside of that wall, these bricks have absolutely no disolving away at all;



    What is the explanation for this you might ask, if you didn’t know what I know about these particular bricks it might be a mystery- one chalked up to that terribly harsh Iowa climate! and on the surface taken at face value that might fly, but… now we come to the fact that I know about these particular bricks- they were made by a brickyard here in Iowa, they made bricks for many buildings, what happened was they had poor quality control on their brick firing process and as a result there are many brick buildings around the state which have a similar phenomenon of totally disolved bricks right next to pristine intact ones, I don’t know any further details beyond that.

    Here’s some explanations on this:

    Unless a kiln is fired to the correct temperature to mature the clay in it, and unless that temperature is held to that temperature long enough to soak every item inside the kiln so they are that temperature completely all the way to their center, then you will wind up with a fired terracotta load that has extreme variances- everything from over fired to underfired, if the terracotta is underfired that is a major problem and will cause the fired clay to be very porous, soft and it will absorb moisture and water, spall and it disolve just like those bricks in the first picture did.
    Mind you- all of those bricks in both photos came from the same maker, these bricks are all about 130 years old and exposed to the weather the same- but actually those facing inside were protected by a roof for a time early in their lives, the others were never protected and faired much better because those happened to have been properly fired!
    Kilns back in the 1880s when these bricks were made were fired by burning wood, this of course was a very highly variable thing and the fires had to be closely watched 24/7.

    Think of firing brick in terms of baking a cake which is familiar to everyone who eats, we all know if you don’t have the oven temperature set high enough, or the cake left in long enough according to the recipe, that the cake will be mostly cooked on the outside, but inside it’s still raw or uncooked, this is exactly what happens with terracotta in a kiln, if the temperature is not hot enough and/or if the terracotta is not left in long enough to absorb the heat completely to the center, it is exactly like putting a cake in the oven, setting it to 300 degrees instead of 375 as the recipe calls for, and taking it out after 15 minutes instead of 25 as the recipe calls for.

    With all of this in mind we come back to Mr Petersen’s terracotta panels at the university and their deterioration after just 40 years, actually if there was enough deterioration by 40 years for people to notice it enough to spark refurnishing/repairs/restorations, then there was already signs of deterioration years before that people hadn’t noticed because it only affected a small area or the damage was small.
    In going back to the book, we learn that much of this terracotta was made from “local” iowa clay, the earlier batches which had been donated were of an unknown clay which Mr Petersen and Mr Cox had to grind up grog to add to it and experiment with getting it right, this is in contrast to purchasing a read-made clay whose source and properties were known, documented and controlled by the manufacturing company who mined, refined, blended the clay according to their various recipies.
    When clay is purchased this way it’s quality and characterists are known, documented, it’s proven and tested as well as consistant, Mr Petersen unfortunately didn’t have the luxury of being able to do this due to lack of funds at the university, so they made do with the materials at-hand which they were able to obtain.
    Since the book says Mr Petersen was not well versed in firing large terracotta pieces (he was a sculptor) and Mr Cox was a ceramicist who knew about his kiln, but had never fired such massively sized works before, there was a lot of experimentation, furthermore the book details how they fired the clay to 2050 degrees which is just about what is called cone 3 temperature- a medium-fire temperature, and they had students sleep on a cot watching the kiln’s temperatures all night to make sure the firing went well.

    What I believe happened is one or more combinations of these possible problems:

    1) The clay may have been poor quality to begin with.
    2) Variances in temperature of the firing.
    3) Variances in the heat-soak- thicker ware and larger loads require more time for the heat to completely saturate all the way to the center of the clay- the raw cake inside analogy per above.
    4) The clay’s maturation temperature was higher than they thought- again the raw cake analogy- the sculptures did not reach a hot enough temperature to completely vitrify the clay, the result is a porous terracotta that is like a sponge.

    One panel they had to remake three times due to problems with it during the firing, I believe from the description of it this one was that very deep relief containing most of the two cow’s heads in the center bas relief panel- very deep relief, lots of mass.
    I suppose another thought comes to mind too, and that is they seemed to have had to re-invent the wheel here with all of this which on one hand I find puzzling too, because making terracotta panels the size of those on the campus is hardly new- every architectural ornament firm in the country, and there were about 100 of them around the turn of the century- made pieces this big and bigger out of terracotta and fired them just fine- I’ve seen pictures of them. Obviously the architectural terracotta companies managed to get the fine art of mass producing pressed terracotta for building facades before 1890 down to a “tee” and by 1920/1930 they had maybe 50 years experience in this country alone at producing thousands of pieces like these a month.
    I’m not sure why the Petersen/Cox team did not seem to have all of this information etc available to them to use and seemed to have had to start from scratch re-inventing what was already in daily commercial practice nation-wide by 100 firms for 50 years by then. Maybe there was a cut-throat atmosphere that eliminated any sharing of technical information due to competition and rivalry, still, it’s difficult to imagine 100 different firms each having to re-invent the entire pressing and firing process themselves by trial and error from scratch, so I don’t have the answer to that, but I believe I do have the answer as to why these sculptures were deteriorating after only 40 years.

  • The cable Building Acanthus Leaf Panel

    Now that the Commodore mask is done, I figured out the size of the model I will make for the Cable Building acanthus leaf block, it will start out in the clay master model at 20-1/2″ x 26″ and after shrinking when that’s dry it would wind up about 18-3/4″ x 23-1/2″, but if I make a plaster mold to hand-press clay into those would start out at 18-3/4″ x 23-1/2″ and shrink to about 17-1/2″ x 21″ which I have calculated out in reverse so as to wind up with a dry pressed sculpture that will fit my 18″ x 23″ kiln.
    I could make the model a couple of inches taller- there’s room in the kiln’s height, but that would alter the proportions.

    The photo below shows the original 1892 design (inset) in the frieze below the limestone cornice, it alternates with a rosette which at this time I doubt I will make a model of, but could, I just don’t find the rosette very interesting or even that well done, the acanthus is more interesting.

    As an aside, that window above the cornice in the photo below was one of the six windows in the loft I had on that very floor. The view is of the 45 degree corner where the Broadway facade meets the Houston St facade, instead of the typical 90 degree join for a box shaped building, they angled two corners which looks more dramatic and it also provides for two windows facing almost South down Broadway. This was a prime location, in fact the cable car company offices were  on the 8th floor- directly above my loft and if the photo was a littl wider to the right and taller that area would be where they had an ornate wrought-iron balcony the bosses could step out onto. The balcony appears in photos of the building taken before about 1920, sometime after that, but probably not very long after 1920 it was removed and the exact same bricks and terracotta etc were used to patch up the doorway and create the window in it’s place. A close look at it now you’d never know a balcony and door opening ever existed there.

    And now I start on this with the form required to give the clay it’s shape and size I want:

  • The Cable Building acanthus leaf panel

    Now that the Commodore mask is done, I figured out the size of the model I will make for the Cable Building acanthus leaf block, it will start out in the clay master model at 20-1/2″ x 26″ and after shrinking when that’s dry it would wind up about 18-3/4″ x 23-1/2″, but if I make a plaster mold to hand-press clay into those would start out at 18-3/4″ x 23-1/2″ and shrink to about 17-1/2″ x 21″ which I have calculated out in reverse so as to wind up with a dry pressed sculpture that will fit my 18″ x 23″ kiln.
    I could make the model a little taller- there’s room, but that would alter the proportions.

  • I anticipate finishing this model this weekend, I did a little minor refining here and there and on the left side today, there are four of the left side petals (egg and dart) attached to the face that need refining, shaping and cleaning up yet, that’s mainly what is left to do this weekend.

    I’m still not happy with the nostrils and transision to the upper lip area yet, not very easy to transistion convincingly because obviously the lips and mouth are highly stylized so there’s little in the way of reference examples to go by, however, I think building the nose downward on the tip and nostril edges a little further and trimming back the septum in the center a little will probably fix that.

  • Christian Petersen

    Back in October I had an unfortunate health issue with one of my dogs that necessitated taking him to the big veterinary teaching university hospital- Iowa State University- for an exam and MRI, over the two trips I made there I became aware of some art work on the campus, naturally, wanting to know more I looked up their web site to see if they had any history on it. I didn’t find anything on the interesting larger than life styled bronze dog in front of the emergency entrance, but I did find information on pieces I didn’t see, as well as made a mental connection between a story in the news I read a few years ago about a pair of bronze panthers and how a resident sculptor made them and they were installed on someone’s driveway gates, removed when the house/estate was demolished, and wound up sold to collectors and various auction outfits over the years, and then winding up more or less “lost” but found on the East coast, purchased and returned to Iowa and the University.

    The panther story was interesting though I was not pleased that the people in charge had decided to hire an art “restorer” to CLEAN the bronze panthers and totally remove the natural (and highly prized) blue-green patina that takes at least a decade in the weather to form, once formed it protects the bronze. They had removed the patina which every former owner/collector and the auction outfits over the years knew to LEAVE ALONE, and then “sealed” the bronze with some stupid clear spray-on coating, which as we all know paints and such coatins will do is FAIL and have to be stripped off.
    Anyway, I knew absolutely nothing at that point about Christian Petersen and didn’t bother to research him, but somewhere along the road of reading about the artwork on the University campus web site, I learned about the unique story and Petersen’s connection to the famed Iowa artist Grant Wood, and how he was hired on around 1933-1934 by the university to make sculptures for the campus, he started out being paid $25/week which was a little less than even the lowest paid, unskilled heating plant custodian at the university.
    $25 a week sounds like slave wages but that’s roughly about $440/week today, or about $11 per hour which even today would provide a reasonably comfortable life in rural Iowa that exceeeds federal minimum wage. Considering they hired Petersen for the faculty who had no college degree or the like as was typically required, and the president of the university arranged for a rented university owned house for the Petersens to live in, and coming on the middle to heels of the Great Depression they were not too bad off.

    It wasn’t long before I discovered there was a book on the man, so I ordered a used hardcover copy on Amazon which I am reading now in fact, it’s an astoundingly interesting read and has a fair number of B&W photos (Petersen died in 1961) There are several copies right now on Amazon from 1 cent up

    Christian Petersen remembered
    Hardcover: 217 pages
    Publisher: Iowa State Pr; 1st edition (November 30, 1986)
    ISBN-10: 0813813468
    ISBN-13: 978-0813813462

    I like the style of some of the terracotta panels he made for the university dairy science building, a 6-1/2 foot high mural of panels 80 feet long among others, a style that was popular around 1920-1930s, but with a hint of Grant Wood’s folk style to it along with a hint of Art Deco.

    I’d include an interesting photo of him in his studio modelling a panel but it seems the University has this really insane copyright paranoia about even using the tiniest low res image without having to fill out forms, submit them with a fee and wait 2-3 weeks for approval per this below:

    Patrons will complete the “Request for Reproduced Images from the Special Collections Department” form and the “Request to Publish or Quote” form and submit with requested images. Special Collections must be cited as the source for the scanned images, and a digital watermark will be placed on the image to indicate its copyright status. Patrons must have permission from the Special Collections Department before mounting any image on a website. Patrons will provide the URL information to the Department as well as provide a link from the Department’s citation to the Department webpage.

    After submission of the appropriate paperwork and payment, the Department will provide the images within 2 weeks, depending on the Department’s schedule. For rush orders, an additional fee will be assessed. Following is the fee schedule for digital reproduction of images from the ISU Library Special Collections Department.

    Just WAAAAAYY too much trouble for me, so any readers will just have to make do with this link and you are on your own:


    I can however include a crop of a photo from the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) division of the Library of Congress since the photos there are public domain and/or public govt funded:

    Publication and other forms of distribution: The original measured drawings and most of the photographs and data pages in HABS/HAER/HALS were created for the U.S. Government and are considered to be in the public domain. However, occasionally material from a historical society or other source is included in the photographs or data pages.

    Credit Line: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS Nr 32. EAST SIDE OF COURTYARD, CENTER (FOURTH FROM LEFT) SCULPTURE PANEL AND FOUNTAIN, LOOKING EAST (Wieskamp)
    HABS IOWA,85-AMES,4-32

  • Butterfly girl panel

    This terracotta panel is in the Brooklyn Museum sculpture garden and dates to around 1885-1890, I had never seen a design quite like it, the building it came from was on 3rd Ave and 68th Street and had been demolished.

    I’m quite tempted to make a model after this because it’s so unique, I calculated it’s size is about 19″ tall and 22″ wide.
    Maybe after I do the Cable Building acanthus panel I’ll do this.

    It is a panel originally from the Mulcaster Building formerly at 1156-1162 Thirdrd Avenue at 68th Street, Manhattan, circa 1885

    This delightful image of a butterfly girl sipping nectar from blossoms through a straw was modelled in low relief with great delicacy. The highly naturalistic though improbably combination of human, insect, and plant life is conceived in the spirit of an Art Nouveau fantasy. This style of decoration, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, displayed organically flowing, ofen highly stylized plant forms and found expression not only in architecture, but in design, illustration, and even dress.