Gnomatter how far I roam along the unpredictable path of life that unravels before me, like a carpet unrolling just a half-step ahead of my oftentimes unsure footfalls, gnomatter how seemingly capricious the situations I’m thrust into – thrown into, as if I’m some actor in a play by Heidegger, only, it seems, I’m the only one who hasn’t been given a script ahead of time, I do have something in my wallet, as it were, that increasingly allows me to step forward with confidence.

It’s my Lowe’s LAR card, with 5% off each purchase made at my current home away from home.

No, no, it’s not that. 

It’s something I mentioned after I’d heard what Max Bennett, a Colorado College alum I reconnected with yesterday in the 3D Arts Building at the school (my former home away from home), told me over lunch at Saigon Cafe in Colorado Springs, my other current home away from home, regarding the blacksmithing work he’s been doing since graduating over five years ago.

It’s the same thing Colgate Searle talked about when he was a visiting professor at CC, just prior to when I detached from the school in 2016, and, though certainly not the only reason, it’s a main one that I was able to do so with an acceptable amount of risk-induced fear.

It’s a confidence in one’s skill set. It’s like carrying an invisible tool chest around with you wherever you go. What’s in your wallet?

Ok, so maybe confidence and competence don’t reside in my wallet. Whence, pray tell, doth it reside? Is it in that spongy mass of grey matter behind one’s eyes? Or is it in one’s hands, One’s arms? Surely it’s in Max’s – 

(If you think it’s poppycock that your limbs hold intelligence within them, go ahead and write me a letter, then wad it into a ball and, next time you see me, toss it to me from a distance of, oh, say, ten feet. I’ll try to catch it. Only let’s do it all with our non-dominant hands and arms – that’d probably be your left. It’s my right.)

Speaking of my rights, having a well-equipped skill set, which is something Max has been honing, day by hot and smoky day, feels like it gives you the right to be doing whatever you intend to do, wherever you intend on doing it. It’s like having a tourist visa, like Max did a couple years ago, working for three months in Germany under a blacksmith there. It’s a key ingredient to successfully navigating a creative life. I don’t know – maybe it’s in one’s front pocket, like a phone’s GPS, able to adjust to the situation at hand, seemingly never flustered, even if you make a wrong turn. It simply recalculates.

I should mention that the Max I’ve presented in the photo above is not the Max you’d encounter in real life. Despite being of above average height, with a sailor’s full beard and a physique characteristic of his vocation, he wouldn’t hurt a fly, and it was only because of my cat-like reflexes that I was able to capture the split-second scowl I’d requested of him.

The Max you’d encounter in real life looks a lot more like this:

Make that more like this:

See? The embodiment of relaxed, happy, confidence. Or, I don’t know, maybe it was because his belly was full and I’d just covered the check. Put it on my Amazon Prime card.

Gnomatter the reason, I – what’s that? You’re wondering why I keep using the word “gnomatter?” 

Well, truth be told, despite having hit my own 10,000 hours of creating all manner of things in a wide variety of media well over 10,000 hours ago – despite having artistic ability and maker moxie and engineering experience and a certain command of my ability to communicate, I, even I, at times, still feel a bit uncertain regarding which road to take, or how to convince you I’m not lost. Sure, Robert Frost’s over my shoulder, pointing the way, but, well, let me just lay it out there.

Yesterday, I turned in the final set of documents the city of Tulsa had requested from me. One of them binds me contractually to the city, and is slated to be signed, after perhaps a few weeks of fine-toothed combing by legal, by Mayor GT Bynum, and attested to by the City Clerk, the Assistant City Attorney, and the Chairperson of the Arts Commission, for just that: a public art commission.

None too soon.

But the slow cogs of governmental red tape (to be fair, they’ve been waiting for me, as I have, my insurance agent, to produce the necessary general liability insurance, worker’s comp., etc.) have at least provided me with time for me to mull just how to explain to you all the “one of these things is not like the other” that my proposal for the city of Tulsa represents.

Because if you only know my hand-centric artistic work since 2012, you’ll be in for a shock. The piece looks nothing like what I typically do.

It’s part of the reason I was so hesitant, heading into the conference room, about to deliver a PowerPoint presentation to the selection committee. They’d seen my prior work – all of it, of a piece. The scale model I cradled in my arms and the spiral bound proposal they were each to be handed surely took them by surprise. 

But not as surprised as I was to get the congratulations email a week later, along with the news, later on, that the decision was unanimous.

But while I still feel like I need to hold off for just a while longer before showing you my concept, I thought I’d at least show you one blast of a project from my past. Along with around 149 other diverse projects in a wide variety of media, the project below definitely contributed to just enough confidence to tip the scales in my direction a few months ago.

It is hoped that it will also serve, like a Styrofoam John the Baptist, to prepare the way for what I’ll be presenting to you soon enough. To begin the inoculation process so that what I’ll show you later won’t cause a heart attack or seizure or what not. 

The project was definitely also on my shoulder, perhaps crowding Robert and contributing to his pointed direction that we make a break for the less trodden road, when it finally dawned on me that 

my wallet also contains an artistic license.

That I’m able, seemingly on a whim, to take Robert’s poetic advice – at least by me, of late, and circle something artistically that no arms, no, not even Max’s, can hammer square.

Because what I’ll be creating for the city of Tulsa can’t square the circle

It’s not intended to. 

It’s not about me

It’s about Tulsa

It’s not private. 

It’s public. Or will be, shortly.

Will eyebrows be raised? Surely. Will some call the work pedantic or opportunistic, ordinary or mediocre? Absolutely. Already have, and I’ve barely shown it to anyone. But then, I’ve Brené Brown and her stellar talk to creatives, entitled Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count, as near as the YouTube app on the phone in my pocket.

I’ll bow out here and segue to one of the most fun and eyebrow raising projects I took on in the fourteen years I was a custom props builder. One that you wouldn’t think would’ve contributed to the kind of work I’ve been doing lately, but it did. 

Because play, and yes, even humor, are part and parcel of my creative work. Essential oil-like ingredients. Or hadn’t you noticed?

While I click on my own link to BB’s talk above and she and TR, to say nothing of RF, are once again instilling me with confidence, I’ll leave you with a Q & A that I did a while back for the Hot Wire Foam Factory, a foam sculpting supply house. In it, I was asked a few foam-centric questions, like this one:

HWFF: Do you have a “crown jewel” or favorite piece of artwork you’ve done?

AT: Well, if we’re talking foam, the 7’ tall gnomes were a blast. Makes me feel sorry for people whose work doesn’t elicit the kind of responses from people that the work I do does at times. I mean the kind of responses where people do double takes and smile and virtual strangers walk up and want to find out what the heck you’re making.

Today I thought I’d show a photo progression of that project.

The gnomes began as one 4′ x 4′ x 8′ block of Styrofoam. (Actually, Styrofoam is a mis-gnomer, so to speak. There are lots of different kinds of foam, but XPS and EPS are two of the main categories. Styrofoam is to EPS as Kleenex is to tissues. Huh. Whaddaya gnome?)

Here, a hot wire bow saw, which was used to cut the original block into smaller ones, is being used to slice one of them into yet smaller sections. A pair of thin strips of wood are screwed into the foam on either side of the block, with a small gap between each pair to create the line where I want the hot wire to cleave the block. 

Carving the boots, with a small gnome bought off of Amazon for scale reference. The primary carving tool, once I get close to the intended form, is a Surform shaver (surface-forming) – think cheese grater.

Here I’ve positioned the gnome model close to the camera to approximate the way I’ll do so when I’m checking the shape of the gnomes’ pointy hats, only then I’m doing so with one eye closed.

Here’s a block cut from the initial one which will become the head and torso of one of the gnomes.

Starting with scale drawings I did of the front and side elevation of the gnome, I used a proportion wheel to scale up the elevations and transferred that info to some thin plywood, which, after being cut on the band saw, was screwed onto the foam block on either side. I still use the same proportion wheel I have for decades. Tried alternative methods, but old school tends to reign.

After one pass of the hot wire bow saw. 

Both sides of the front elevation cut, the plywood guides were removed from the block. 

Often, during the middle of client-based projects, I wished I could just stop and leave whatever I was making in an unfinished state. The photo above is a good example of that. The boots and hat are fully carved and the rest of the head and torso have received front and side elevation ‘silhouette cuts’ with the hot wire bow saw, resulting in this modern art oddity.

From there, the rest of the carving has to be done by eye, and carefully, especially as you get closer to the intended form. Subtractive sculpture – taking the material away rather than adding it, takes a certain mindset. A red Sharpie marker denotes intended landmarks, but is only so helpful: one pass over the marks with the Surform rasp and viola, they’re gone.

Here the first gnome’s torso is around 85% completed. Unfortunately, that last 15% often takes about as long as the first 85%, as you have to carve more slowly and carefully and add small, time-demanding details. Unlike with wood, where I can at least glue pieces back on if I go too far, with foam, it’s hard to add back what you’ve subtracted.

In the photo above, I have situated the second gnome’s head and torso next to the first one, which allows me to compare them and, hopefully, get them to closely match each other.

After both gnomes have been fully carved, I epoxied boots and hats to bodies, filled low spots, sanded, filled, sanded, etc., and then applied a few coats of a product that gave the Styrofoam a harder, more durable shell. Then I sanded and filled some more. Once I was pleased with the surface, I applied numerous coats of primer to prepare them for painting. I added some blue pigment to every other primer coat so I could be certain I’d covered the entire surface with at least three layers of primer.


It was at this point that passersby would do double takes, smile, stop, and come ask me what the heck I was making. Heck, don’t ask me – I’m always the last to gnome.

Finally, the gnomes are painted with acrylics. My wife coats the gnome’s coat with the first layer of blue paint.

The completed twins. Gnomes, ready to roam, to leave home, just as soon as I complete two large crates.

Just before being booted out the door.

I was so glad to finish this project. Start to finish, it took about a month. The client was happy with the result, and immediately called to ask if I would be able to make two more! By that time, I was starting to see gnomes everywhere I looked, even in my dreams, and, as I was legitimately busy with other work, I told them I was regretfully already booked. Truth be told, though, there wasn’t much regret. I was grateful to move beyond my blue gnome phase.

And I am grateful for the wide variety of commercial work I did for many years. One can learn much during such a self-directed grad school of sorts. Things like the costliness of curves and learning patience through practice, for two examples. Or another adage I’ll write about sometime: fabric is for fools. Probably why a lot of my projects involved fabric.

Thanks for viewing. I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have about foam carving, though these days, all my carving is in wood; I’m finished with gnomes. No mas, por favor. Gno-mas!