Susan Crain uses shreds of newspaper soaked in wallpaper paste to shape the head of one of her sculptures. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven

Putting the Pieces Together

The final layers of Susan Crain's gently contoured "My Lady" sculpture were created from hundreds of foreclosure notices published in the Mail Tribune.

The artist says the heartache represented in those black and white sheets helped the 4-foot-tall papier-mâché creation become a monument to a woman's ability to reinvent herself in tough times and to the transforming power of art.

"Art has a way of helping you look at things from a different perspective," Crain said. "When I put the foreclosure notices in her, I felt so bad. But I decided I was putting them in her for a good reason."

Crain, 62, is hoping to help others see themselves differently by offering a series of free workshops to unemployed women.

"I'd like to have 12 women in three separate classes," she said. "We'll meet for three hours once a week. And they can also come in a few more hours a week by appointment."

Crain's sculpture classes will continue for six months at her studio in the Ashland Art Center. Crain said she hopes the opportunity to build a "lady" of their own will help the participants build their self-esteem, provide motivation and create a sense of accomplishment.

"Looking for work is stressful and often demoralizing, and it must be even more so in this economic climate," Crain said. "My hope is that they might take a positive outlook with them on interviews."

Crain's plan is for the free classes to be paid for through grants and donations. But she has yet to nail down the funding.

"I'm saying 'they will be paid for by grants' as an affirmation,'" said Crain. "But even if that doesn't happen, I'm committed to doing these classes regardless."

No stranger to reinvention herself, the former Texas real estate agent quit the business in the late '80s after what she described as "another devastating savings and loan collapse."

"I just decided I wasn't going to do that anymore," Crain said.

Crain headed back to college and, after a few missteps, enrolled in art classes.

"I was taking a Spanish class at first, but it was driving me nuts," she said. "I was 45 years old and dreading class. I decided that was stupid. And I enrolled in a sculpture class."

Now with more than 17 years of experience sculpting figures in stone, clay and paper, Crain is working on a series of 10 "Paper Women." Once her series is complete, Crain plans to show her work as a collection, along with her students' sculptures.

"Paper is a fun thing to do," Crain said. "It is additive and subtractive."

Sculpting in stone is totally subtractive. Sometimes too much so. One false tap with the hammer can knock off a nose or an ear and ruin a piece. But paper is very forgiving, she said.

A former substitute and art teacher, Laura Hurst, 57, was laid off a year ago after working for 13 years as an art teacher at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility.

"I sold my house, picked up everything and moved here," Hurst said.

Hurst has been searching for a job that will suit her arts background, but she hasn't yet found a position. In the meantime, she met Crain and decided to indulge in some weekly art therapy, and add to her artistic skill set. Striking a balletic pose, Hurst said her papier-mâché lady was inspired by the work of a deceased artist, Joe Maher.

"It's going to be uplifting," said Hurst. "She'll be up on her tippy toes, holding a part of her long flowing gown out to the side."

All of the sculptures will be constructed entirely of paper, masking tape, wallpaper paste and Spackle. None will contain any metal armature so the large pieces will be easily portable. Each will take from four to six months to complete, Crain said.

"It takes a long time for the material to dry between (adding new) layers," said Crain.

Crain cocks her head as she watches Hurst wad up pages of newsprint and carefully tape the formed pad to her paper lady.

"I was thinking something a little puffier," Crain said.

Hurst rips apart the underpinning of what will ultimately become her lady's shoulder and begins anew with a smile and a shrug.

Pulling out a tape measure, Crain shows Hurst how to better create the proper proportions for the image that is three-quarters of lifesize.

"I did a little sculpture in college," Hurst said. "But I'm basically a watercolorist."

Crain moves back across her studio to her own creation. Piling soggy wads of vividly colored glossy advertising pages onto her "Spa Lady" sculpture, Crain says her latest creation was inspired by an 80-year-old woman.

Instead of smoothly layering sheets of paper onto her sculptures, Crain crumples, wads and blobs on piles of soggy material in a technique she describes as "looping."

Looping creates peaks and valleys, and provides a textured surface for the next layer of material. The end result can be as smooth or rough as the artist desires. Crain's papier-mâché sculptures are finished with a layer of Spackle which is carefully rasped smooth, followed by multiple applications of paste wax which are polished to create a protective finish, she said.

"My Lady" looks like granite and is as smooth as marble to the touch.

"I like my sculptures to be touchable," she said. "Little children go right for her breasts. And the parents are so embarrassed. But it makes perfect sense."

The maternal-looking piece has been a work in progress for the duration of Crain's artistic career. There were several stopping points along the way. But "she" was never quite right. Never quite finished, Crain said.

"I took her home at one point and cut her head off. It wasn't sitting right on her shoulders. I was so traumatized to do that to her," said Crain, with a head shake and a self-deprecating chuckle. "Someone told me a piece of artwork is not done until the artist is dead."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

Share This Story