I enjoy making things. When I was a teen, I learned how to make bookcases and cabinets out of wood. I also made some speaker cabinets and bunk beds. It is pretty fun and satisfying to make furniture, but it can actually be more expensive that just buying something similar at Costco. That is where some of the satisfaction comes from when making wacky stuff like costumes and sculpture. There are no blueprints and there are no slick professional versions being sold at Ikea.
In December of 2002, I got an email from Eric R. of Minnesota. He was in the process of building a restaurant based on a space alien theme. He inquired if I would be interested in building the 12-14 paper mache aliens that would decorate the walls and ceiling.
I thought that would be an awesome project. I agreed to send him some sketches.
To give me an idea of what he wanted, he sent six photos from an Alien Encounter restaurant in North Dakota. They were interesting, scene-based figures: Alien walking an alien dog, the mounted head of an alien deer, a cute alien emerging from an egg, alien sitting on the crescent moon, etc.
|I came up with five simple sketches of what I thought would be funny,
cute or thought-provoking aliens: Cowboy alien, tattoo-artist alien,
mechanic alien, fishing alien and astronomer alien.
Eric liked the sketches, so we agreed on a price-per-alien. Before we finalized the purchase, however, he wanted to see a sample of a completed alien sculpture.
I wasn't thrilled with this idea, because I'd have to pay for all the materials up front without any guarantee that I'd be paid.
However I was interested in how much time and money each alien would require, and I wanted Eric to feel comfortable with the purchase. Plus I figured I could always sell the completed alien if he changed his mind.
For the sample, I decided on the fisherman. In my sketch, the fisherman was an alien with long spines from his back, facing away from the water, reading a book. Additional props included a stool, a tray of fish and a book.
My figure-drawing ability is not the best, so I started with a few photos of myself in the fisherman pose.
I printed the side-view very lightly onto a sheet of paper and inked in an alien skeleton plan.
I wanted the finished alien to be 36" tall, the printout alien was 9" tall, so I used a 4:1 scale to figure the size of the various parts.
Perhaps you can read the parts list at the bottom of this image. I added up the lengths of all the pieces and knew I would need 3 10' pine boards, called 1x2s.
On this first shopping trip, I bought the boards, a roll of plastic tubing, a box of screws and a roll of chicken wire.
I marked and cut up the lumber.
Unlike building cabinets and shelves, making humanoid sculpture requires screwing boards together at wild angles, which means that traditional joinery, like butt joints and lap joints don't usually come into play.
My construction usually requires more creative joinery, which is uglier, weaker and requires a few more screws. Luckily the wooden support structure is hidden under a layer of paper mache or fabric.
The legs took shape quickly. A coffee can stood in for the stool.
The arms and shoulders were next.
In this photo, you can see the blue Makita drills in the background. One is equipped with a drill bit for pilot holes, the other has a Philips head driver bit for the screws.
Once the shoulders were connected to the hips, the wooden skeleton was nearly finished. His elbows rested just off of his knees.
I formed the structure of his hands with wire coat hangers. I slipped short lengths of plastic tubing on top to give the fingers thickness.
I also used coat hanger wire to make the three fish. I used lots of masking tape and newspaper to add body.
The stool was PVC tubing screwed to wood, topped with a cardboard circle.
I built the head on a wooden L.
I attached two hanger wire antennae and began taping clumps of newspaper onto it.
Here is a side view of the head. I used ping pong balls for the eyes, and I didn't give him a mouth.
The head, front view.
The hands and head were attached with screws, and the fingers were bent around a cardboard "book".
I prepared more wire hangers, wrapped in twisted newspaper and tape for the alien's back spines. The blue spine on the right doesn't have any paper on it yet.
I wanted the middle ones to be the longest, with the shorter spines to the side.
These were to have fishing line hanging from them, dangling into a "stream" behind the alien.
I attached the back spines at an angle similar to the antennae.
Here the alien is sitting atop a work bench, and I have begun stapling chicken wire to the wooden frame.
It took many years for me to figure out that working at a comfortable height is a simple way to make a job easier.
I bent the chicken wire into little tubes that form the alien limbs. I wrap the arms and legs first, then wrap the torso with a larger tube.
As with most jobs, getting the frame roughly covered doesn't take very long, but the details take quite a while. Two challenging areas were where hands where the wrists meet the fingers, and forming a neck where the torso meets the head.
At this point, I was ready to start putting paper mache onto the wire frame. I ripped a newspaper into long, 2" wide strips and mixed some flour and water together to make thin paste.
Unlike in previous paper mache projects, I added water to the flour instead of adding the flour to water. This worked a little better, but there were still plenty of clumps that had to be smooshed out of the paste.
Please continue reading the story of the Fishing Alien on page two.
Other incredible stuff | Home | Contact Rob
June 12th, 2003.