(Note: This is a looooong, detailed post, mostly about the process of creating a mount (a display stand) for a small boxed artifact. I wrote this up as part of a class assignment.
There’s a life lesson buried in here–there always is!–but I understand if this is too long for most of you to actually read!)
I’m taking an online museum class through the Northern States Conservation Center. It’s my first online class. It’s been fun, exhilarating, thought-provoking, overwhelming and scary.
I’ve always wanted to work in a museum. I loved any school assignment that required me to build a diorama, a display, a presentation. In my own artwork and display, I pay attention to how my work is laid out, how the presentation looks. When people first said my booth looked like museum displays, I was thrilled.
I’ve wanted to take my work to another level for awhile now. I have vague ideas of what that looks like. But I had to explore what was holding me back. Oh! I don’t have the skills! I don’t know how to make something look like a real museum display!
How would I find out? A few hours on the Internet brought me to this online school. I wish I could take ALL their classes, but then I’d never get any art made….
I applied for a grant from the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen to pay for part of the class. I waited eagerly for classes to begin.
And fell in right over my head.
The class was small, but it seemed like everyone else taking the class already had experience. They all worked in musueums. Many had already made museum mounts, and wanted to IMPROVE their skills, not acquire them from scratch.
But I felt heartened by the fact that three of us were also artists. And the instructor, Tom Bennett of the Alaska Heritage Museum in Anchorage, AK was amiable, experienced, and encouraging. Also funny as all get out.
The supplies list for the class was daunting, too. A MAP gas torch?? Large cutting tools? Power saws??? I decided to get the basics and save the large power tools for another day. And Tom assured me I would not burn down the house with the big scary torch, IF I were careful. And IF I kept a big ol’ pot of water handy. And IF I could scamper fast in case of emergency.
It turns out I had most of the pieces I would need for soldering brass, and cutting plexiglas.
Next was the reading list. Holy Moly! I needed an extra lifetime to get through the required reading. Were we going to be tested on all this at the end?? Panic set in.
Until I finally realized I was taking the class to learn techniques for MY purposes. Not to create actual museum mounts for…well, a museum. I could practice the skills, and ask the right questions about material stability, off-gassing, sealants and surfaces–and put them to work making things I needed to display my work. I read most of the materials, put some away for future reading and reference. I realized just knowing about the variables was a valuable mindset.
You’d think I’d be done kicking and screaming and fussing about the class requirements. Nope. When it came time to create a Plexiglas mount, I dug in once again. No way, I said. I don’t like the look of plexi, I don’t want to use it in my work, and there’s no need for me to learn the skills. Tom cajoled me to just try playing with it.
And here’s what got me to take that next step:
When I looked at the mounts my classmates had made, I knew I could do this.
One fellow made a simple Plexiglas mount to hold a shoe. It was time consuming, he said. But the most important thing he learned was to be patient with the material (Plexiglas). I also noticed his mount looked very much like old plastic display pieces I’d seen in old shoe stores. Oh. So we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel! If something worked in one situation, it could very well work in another, more formal setting.
The same with another classmate’s mount, a sort of 3-pronged brass armature that held a mineral sample. It looked sort of like a giant ring setting, she mused. Aha! It did! She didn’t have to come up with something unique and new. If it’s good enough to hold a diamond in an engagement ring, it’s good enough to hold a piece of fool’s gold.
I decided I would try making a Plexiglas mount. I figured I was standing on the shoulders of giants…!!
I want to make assemblages, using old handmade wood boxes and my artifacts. I decided to make a mount that would hold a backdrop of old fabric–specifically, a fragment of a wool Kilim rug, handwoven in Afghanistan and probably at least 50-100 years old. (I bought the scraps from a guy who used to travel to Afghanistan, in more peaceful times, and bring back rugs to sell to merchants in the Boston area in the 80’s.)
I started with this box, from a set of roughly handmade small “drawers” I acquired a few years ago. I love the weathered, worn wood and the green paint.
I wanted a mount to hold the fabric along the inside back of the box, and fold forward along the inside bottom of the box. (Got that?)
I made casual internal measurements of the box space, starting with the inside height:
And the inside depth. The dotted line is where the bend will be.
Oops! Adjust the lighting….
Next, I grab my Plexiglas cutter, and get my new split-point titanium drill bit ready. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds great, doesn’t it? (Actually, I can guess. But I’d think that ALL drill bits would be split point…?)
I score along the cutting line with the cutter. Then I clamp the Plexi onto a surface with a good sharp/hard edge.
I take a deep breathe, and give it a mighty karate chop. Snap! A perfect break! (Yes, I tried it on a scrap piece first.)
Now for the bend. Tom kept saying, “Keep the torch moving, keep it moving!” Kind of like a floor sander, I thought. Secretly, I wished for a plastic bending strip heater element. But I knew I should start with a torch. Cheaper. And I already had a torch. Also, I’m realizing I use “shopping” for every contingency a way to avoid committing to any specific decision. So enough tool-buying! On with the Plexi bending!
I dug around til I found a smooth metal something I could form a good bend with. I’m remembering one of my classmates saying that the heated and softened Plexi picked up “every wrinkle and seam in the aluminum foil.” I line my tiles with aluminum foil carefully, and place a cookie sheet underneath for another layer of protection. At the last minute, I remember Tom’s advice on keeping water handy. Got it!
After working on a practice piece, I begin to heat the Plexi for a bend. Back and forth, never tarrying long in any one spot… Horrors! Tiny bubbles! In wine, a good thing. In Plexi, not so much. Oh, well, they won’t show. And if I don’t tell Tom….oh, rats.
I quickly move the sheet to the metal frame and bend. I go a little at a time–better not enough, and be able to rework, than too much bend and a melty plastic piece….
I’m actually intrigued by the consistency of the warmed Plexi. And I’m surprised how long it stays workable. As it cools, it gets a little harder to form. It feels…malleable, but in a controllable way. This stuff could be fun! I remember the chat session where everyone talks about making Plexiglass “strings”. Hmmmmm…… Not now, Luann! You’ve only got a couple more hours! Back to work!
I finish the bend, and insert the finished piece into the box. Whoops! It sticks out too far on the bottom. I forgot to allow for how much space the Plexi glass itself takes up inside the box. I have to trim off almost a full inch. I use the same technique–clamping, whacking (with a hammer this time) but it’s not as clean a cut (because the split is so close to the edge.) I sand off as much as I can. I smooth off the burrs and heat-melt the edges a little. I’m too afraid I’ll overdo it and have to start over. So, just enough heat to smooth the edges.
Next, I lay out the places where I’ll drill holes with my 1/16″ split point titanium drill bit. (I just love saying that…)
I worry a lot about splitting, chipping or cracking the form while drilling. So at first I clamp the mount to a piece of wood (for drilling into). But after a few practice drills on my scrap, I realize I don’t have to fuss so much. Maybe because the Plexi is thin, and the drill bit is small. I drill at slightly different speeds. I watch for the “curls” of Plexi to wend their way up the bit (like drilling soft iron, Tom said. Like I occasionally drill soft iron…) I go slowly, so as not to heat up the Plexi, and melt the curls. I try not to push down on the drill, but let the bit do its work. I try to drill straight up and down, but that’s not as easy as I thought. (I can see right through the Plexi and see how angled the holes are. Cool!) Again, it doesn’t really matter if the holes are straight, for my purposes.
No chips. No cracks. No breaking. Only scrub marks where the head of the drill rubbed against the Plexiglas, when I had to drill into the tight bend.
One thing: That drill is heavy! And my arms are way out of shape. I wonder if I could have gotten away with fewer holes….??
This is where I get my brainstorm. I remember that acrylic felt is really safe to use with fabrics. Maybe I’ll line the form with acrylic felt, THEN put the fabric scrap on top of that.
Another brainstorm: I have sticky-back felt! I cut a piece to fit the mount, and apply it carefully and evenly. I got good at this from applying squares of the stuff to the bottom of my steel sculpture bases.
The mount with adhesive-backed felt, ready to sew on the fabric scrap.
My next “big” decision: What kind and color thread to use? If I were making a real museum mount, I might opt for white cotton–no dyes. Also, it will show up better on the back, in case someone down the road wanted to undo my work. But for my artwork, I want black thread, because it won’t show so much. I can completely bury the stitches on the front, so they’ll be invisible.
However, I’m conflicted about using cotton. I know from experience it can rot fairly quickly, over a few decades. Is it really better to use than a polyester?
In the end, I opt for black cotton thread. I make a mental note to do a Google search for archival techniques for fiber.
I’m sewing through the holes and catching just a thread or two of the fabric fragment. Then going back down through the same hole and moving to the next one. As a quilter, I know that many tiny stitches can be stronger than a few big stitches. Hand stitching is gentler than machine stitching. And the all-over stitching will support the entire weight of the fabric over the entire mount surface. Just hanging it from the top of the box would put the entire weight of the fiber fragment on one “row” of the fabric, which isn’t good.
It takes a lot longer to sew than I thought.
And for a bad reason….. I didn’t realize I’d be sewing through the adhesive on the back of the felt! It quickly gums up my needle. I have to stop every two or three stitches/holes to wipe it clean with acetone. I realize, too, if this had been a real ancient fiber fragment, I would have practically “inserted” tiny amounts of adhesive into the fiber itself.
So if I were to do this in a “professional” capacity, I’d skip the adhesive-backed felt, and used plain acrylic felt. On the other hand, the sticky backing allows me to “wrap” the felt around the bottom edge of the Plexi mount. It looks great!
I’m guessing my rug fragment already has a ton of antique camel dung ground into it, so a little sticky stuff won’t compromise its integrity.
Finally, the sewing is done! You can see some of the thread “tails” hanging loose. I decided not to knot the ends, to anchor them in the fabric like I usually do. It wouldn’t be feasible with a real ancient fragment, and it’s not necessary in this application. The sewing offers sufficient stabilizing of the fragment.
Now to see how it fits in the box….
Let’s take a closer look…
Unfortunately, I neglected to select a box that was tall enough inside to feature a horse sculpture on a steel stand. So I improvise with some other “ingredients”…
Necessity is truly the mother of invention. I don’t have any shorter stands, so I simply stack up some tiles to set a small horse sculpture on. Clay tile, and two “sea glass” tiles.
So what did I learn?
I’ve learned that museum mounts are both simpler, and a lot more complicated, than I could ever imagine.
I’ve learned there really are people who spend their days making such mounts. And I could have had an entirely different, happy career, in an alternate universe.
I’ve learned help is often just a phone call/e-mail/text message away.
I’ve learned I can learn from my classmates.
I’ve learned Plexiglas is fun to work with.
I’ve learned that even when I THINK I’ve considered all possible factors, there will always be surprises. most of which will only be overcome with practice, practice, practice. And good humor. And luck!
I’ve learned there are fixed principles (when heating the Plexi with a torch, move the flame even faster to avoid bubbles.)
I’ve learned there are variable principles (small holes, thin Plexi, slow drilling means I don’t have to clamp the plastic down to a wood base.)
I’ve learned that sometimes the obvious shortcut (the sticky-backed felt) is not the best way to go (could contaminate or damage a true “ancient artifact”.)
I’ve learned there are as many ways to approach a mount design as there are people in the room.
I’ve learned that even a simple decision, like what kind/color thread to use, can cause hugely annoying logic loops.
I’cw learned to allow plenty of time to make a mount. Time from start to finish for this “simple” project was almost four hours. I could get faster with practice. But it pays to plan for every contingency.
I’ve learned when I’m unsure or hesitant, I procrastinate by doing excessive research, second-guessing myself, and S*H*O*P*P*I*N*G for every single tool or supply I might possibly need.
I’ve learned I can use quick, modern, simpler methods to display the elements of these assemblages. But it’s good to know the methods that will keep my work safe and undamaged for many years to come.
I’ve learned I should try making Plexiglas “strings” one of these days, because everyone says it’s fun!
I’ve learned you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I never thought I’d take an online class, especially one with (necessarily) so much hands-on techniques to learn. But it worked! I bent Plexiglas today!! (I am easily amused, I admit it.)
And even now, I catch myself thinking…
“Hot Dawg! I made a museum mount today!”