Bella, a majestic nymph, perches on a moss-speckled stump. Neither happy nor sad, she gazes downward at pine needles and granite. Her skin is green and hard, and at a closer look, evidence can be seen of the hands that crafted her.
Renowned Maine woodworker Thomas Moser formed “Bella” in clay in the winter of 2010. Cast in bronze, her beautiful naked form sits surrounded by evergreens at his Maine home. Replicas, priced at $18,000, will be offered in a limited edition of 20 and are available at Thos. Moser showrooms throughout the United States.
“What’s really wonderful is creating a human form,” Moser said. “I have spent 39 years building furniture professionally, and everything is adapted to the human form. Working with a piece of wood and making 3-D objects has been the core meaning of my life, but when you fashion the human form, it’s like you’re in another dimension. It’s a re-creative process that has a very strong spiritual dimension to it.”
Moser founded Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers in 1972 in New Gloucester. Since then, he has established showrooms of handcrafted furniture in Freeport, Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco. He sees Maine as the center for fine woodworking, and his shop is in Auburn.
This isn’t Moser’s first time sculpting. Twenty-five years ago, he sculpted clay busts of his four sons and cast them in concrete, losing some of the detail in the process. At the time, the eldest was 17 and the youngest was 10.
“Bella” was born last winter at Moser’s house in La Belle, Fla. The five-year house project was complete, and he was antsy for something to do. He decided to try creating the entire human form, and his 38-year-old neighbor — who is a banker and had never modeled for artwork before — agreed to model for him.
“She weighs about 90 pounds and is just under 5 feet tall, so a full-scale replica was far more doable and took up a lot less clay. And she has a very pleasant figure,” Moser said.
“Bella” is a Spanish and Italian word for “beautiful.”
The sculpture took him several weeks to complete and weighs 145 pounds in bronze.
“Having been self-taught, I go up a blind alley and make a lot of mistakes,” Moser said.
He began with an armature, a skeleton of soft copper plumbing pipes, bent, taped and wired together. To put “meat on the bones,” he used foam window insulation, which expands rapidly and dries quickly into a solid mass.
“I tend to put too much foam in and have to saw some off,” he said.
Over the base form, he sculpted the figure and all of its intricacies with oil-based clay called plasticine, referring to photos and sketches in addition to the model.
“Light has a tremendous amount to do with it,” he said. “If I could, I’d sculpt outside on a cloudy day, where you have a multidimensional light source. The shadows created have a huge effect on the depth of the work at hand.”
It’s also difficult to get a smooth finish on clay. He can’t polish it with the 400-grit sandpaper he uses on wood. That’s the reason finger and tool marks are often visible on bronze sculptures.
“Looking at a bronze sculpture, you think the artist is the one that formed it and did all the work, but he just began the process,” Moser said.
Moser sent “Bella” to Somerset Sculpture and Foundry in West Bath for Digby Veevers-Carter to cast it in bronze.
To create a mold out of a clay figure, the shop cuts the arms, legs and head off the body. The pieces then are covered in the same rubber used in a dentist’s office to make a tooth mold. The rubber is covered in plaster and lined with wax.
The wax figure is taken from the plaster and covered with a ceramic material. Placed in a kiln fired up to 2,000 degrees, the ceramic hardens and the wax melts away, leaving a mold to pour the molten bronze. After the bronze cools for a few days, the ceramic is broken away. This type of casting is called lost-wax or investment casting because of the investment of so many materials in the process. The sculpture is sandblasted with fine glass beads and colored with acid.
The bronze “Bella” is on display in Thos. Moser showrooms in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and Moser has moved on to his next project: a sculpture of his 4-year-old granddaughter running barefoot in the sand, arms flailing.
“Yesterday afternoon and evening I spent working on my little girl’s feet,” Moser said. “I’m sculpting cloth and making it flow in clay. By its nature, fabric is very soft, pliable and sinuous, and certainly bronze is anything but; so it’s a challenge.”
In the past year, he returned to the busts of his four sons and added back the detail lost in the cement. He then cast them in bronze to give to his seven grandchildren.
“There is, in all of this, an overriding question: Is what I’m doing art or is it craft? Having replicated the person in bronze, does that make it art, or is it more like Madame Tussauds wax models? Is it expressing something? Do [viewers] experience something other than replication?”
Moser’s work in clay and bronze is a small step toward his ambition to work with marble. He marvels at the marble sculptures of Michaelangelo, of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Renaissance artists.
Working with marble is entirely subtractive, as it is with wood. Clay, being both subtractive and additive, is more forgiving.
“I’m discovering, as I go forward, that I have to walk before I run,” Moser said. “I think that cutting marble will be the ultimate challenge.”
For information about Thos. Moser, visit www.thosmoser.com.