The child's game of statues takes on a whole new meaning in a town like Washington, where literally hundreds of outdoor sculptures stud the parks and pocket the walls of buildings.
Would-be statues of all ages can easily tour the real thing, using James M. Goode's excellent Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C. But a short course in the techniques and possibilities of the sculptor's art is available on the Mall, free to all eyes to see.
Starting with the wealth of art poised outside the "doughnut gallery" (Hirshhorn), the tour takes you inside to warm your hands and mimic Matisse. Then comes a stroll through the pigeon-speckled Victorian garden, a gaze at an impressive turn and a scholarly inventor, a climb on Uncle Beazley, and a ride up D.C.'s ultimate statue -- the Washington Monument.
On a blustery winter day, the neighborhood kids and I mittened up and set out to play statues. At first, the children vied with one another to define the art ("a car can be a statue," "a house can be a statue"), but we narrowed their definitions by assigning credentials.
A statue, we decided, deals with shape and form -- like a car, or a house -- but it purpose is to show what ten-year-old Debbie calls "the shape of an idea." Seven-year-old Ricky added that it had to be made by a sculptor; that made it official.
We invaded the Hirshhorn first, and the children raced from one outdoor piece to another. The ship-like Isis (by Mark DiSuvero) captured everyone's imagination, and started what became that day's continuous refrain: Look, but don't touch.
Four-year-old Bryce, who lives in an interesting world peopled by superheroes, was immediately drawn to Emile-Antoine Bourdell's The Great Warrior of Montauban, a massive, musculat figure who obviously ate all his spinach. Bryce spent several minutes describing the gruesome actions the warrior could take with his magnificent sword.
The older children were smitten with Jean Ipousteguy's statuesque illusion, Man Pushing the Door. On one side, the man bumps the door, while on the other side, his hands and leg come through the wood. What intriqued the children was the statue's authenticity: "The door has real hinges."
Most of modern art has a borderline silly quality that children appreicate; Claes Oldenburg's aluminum Mouse got ours tittering. The flexible, squeaky Disney version was transformed by Oldenberg into a hard, black, anchored piece, complete with geometric eyes the kids used like windows.
Oldenberg's work is often a play on the form, but the work of Henry Moore is more like form's celebration. When we saw his Three-Piece Reclining Figure No. 2: Bridge Prop, it looked like three rather awkward lumps to me, and like a potential climbing toy to Bryce. The rest of our party, however, saw the body shapes -- legs, arms, bottoms, breasts -- that the sculptor chose to emphasize.
Defining ideas through form is the classic principle of sculpture. Newer sculptors, however, are free of the restrictions of sculpture's usual materials -- wood, clay, stone or bronze -- and have used the new materials to express forms that were impossible under the older restrictions.
Some sculptors revel in this freedom by creating sculptures of structure, like Kenneth Snelson's Needle Tower. An aluminum-and-stainless-wire job that looks like an imitation of a radio tower, the work is a study in triangles, of strength through the stress of three sides pulling against each other.
We were seven people, but the principle remained the same. We formed a circle, joined hands land leaned back, feeling both the stress and the strength.
By this time, even the mittens felt cold, so we plowed inside to the shivering stare of the guards. There, beside the information desk, stood Aristide Maillol's gorgeous Nymph, which our irreverent batch transformed into a cartoon. "She's saying, 'Where's the bathroom?'" giggled ten-year-old Sherry.
Her little brother asked the question they were all thinking: How come most statues don't have any clothes on? I explained that the sculptors admired the shape of the human body, and they couldn't see the body very well when it was all dressed up.
We went upstairs to look at heads: Raymond Duchamp-Villon's Maggy (a kind of disembodied Barney Google), and Henri Matisse's study of the five Heads of Jeannette, which melt from the highly realistic to the highly abstract. "If you were going to make the sixth head, what would it look like?" I asked them.
"Gee," Sherrt pondered, "it would juist barely be there."
We searched out Red Room's Loft on 26th Street, a cardboard scene of what looks like a swell party. To the kids, it was a veteran dollhouse.
By now we were ready to face winter again (and the guards were ready to throw us out), so we piled out onto Independence Avenue, gawked past the Centennial Building and its curlicue decorations, and walked through the Victorian Garden admiring the elaborate, wrought-iron pictures on the benches.
Outside the gardned stands the Andrew Jackson Downing Urn, named for the romantic landscape architect who did the Mall's original design. Most statues in the city seem to be of noble-looking men astride impressive horses; the children enjoyed learning that the gentler arts are celebrated in statue.
There is a bronze, noble-looking gentlemen gazing out over the Mall. Standing outside the Castle is Joseph Henry, first administrator of the Smithsonian Institution and the first scientist in American to prefect the electromagnet. His invention graces the statue's base.
Mechanical-minded Ricky went along with my suggestion of checking for the invention, but the rest of the kids were off like a shot to Uncle Beazley, the fiberglass dinosaur outside the Natural History Museum. Winter is the perfect season for climbing the patient Triceratops -- there is not competition from other children, and the mud that regularly oozes around his feet and tail is dry at last.
I had intended to tell the children that the Uncle they were scrambling over was designed by paleontologists and executed by an animal sculptor named Louis Paul Jonas for the 1964 World's Fair in New York, but I was too busy catching falling kids to lecture.
Then we planned to walk by Jose de Rivera's soaring Infinity outside the American Museum next door, and then ride up what the kids call "King Kong's Pencil" (the Washington Monument), but I was out of warmth, and we headed home.
Since children learn better through their hands than their eyes, I gathered a few sculpture materials at home and let them take their pick among the three classic sculpting methods: Carving, molding or modeling.
Using dull knives, a couple of kids set to work on hardened plaster to create sculpted animals. If flopped, miserably -- the plaster was just too difficult. Later, I tried my six-year-old daughter on a bar of soap and a knife; this went quickly, and worked well.
For molding, we took a block of paraffin (available at the drugstore) and tossed it into an old coffee can along with a crayon for color. The can was set in a pan of simmering water, and heated just to the point where the wax melted -- paraffin is highly flammable.
Meanwhile, the amiable Ricky took an old plastic bowl out to our sandbox and filled it up with reasonably clean sand. We wet this down enough so the kids could dig out shapes for their molds -- monsters and letters. I poured the melted wax into these shapes, and set the bowls aside for a couple of hours. Then, with some careful lifting, the kids got their waxy statues.
Finally, we brought out familiar modeling clay, and the children rolled and squeezed, pinched and poked the medium into snakes, fruits and people.