In the Making: Private-Edition Sisyphus

Custom sculpture artistic process

I create a limited number of custom, one-of-a-kind sculptures each year, and every now and then, am privileged to share the stories of how they come about.

This private-edition sculpture was commissioned by an executive who really identified with the feeling of endlessly pushing a rock up a mountain. He asked for five copies to share with his co-workers. I'm delighted to think that there's an office somewhere in Los Angeles with this sculpture on the shelves.

(Contact me if you'd like learn more about creating your own custom gift.)

As you might anticipate, it all began with an email:

hello. I saw some of your pieces at one of the shops in downtown [Los Angeles]. You do great work. are you open to making a custom sculpture?

I'm interested in having a few copies of a piece of Sisyphus. Are you familiar with the story? In Greek mythology Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He is being punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to hit him, repeating this action for eternity. Thanks, B.

B. told me that he wanted to have a single copy of the sculpture for his office, with additional copies as gifts for his business partners. The image of Sisyphus' hard work meant a lot to him in his professional life, so this custom sculpture would be a reminder of all he'd accomplished and continued to work for.

Since I studied Latin for four years in high school and ancient mythology in college, this request had me by the heartstrings. Did I know Sisyphus?! He's up there with my favorite Greek-kings-punished-by-the-gods of all time. Don't pretend you don't have one.

I began with sketches of what I had in mind

Over a few sketching iterations, I worked with B. on how big to make the mountain, relative to the boulder and Sisyphus, himself. Notice the subtle perspective shift between versions 1 and 2. Version 3 found a happy medium that balanced perspectives.

  Custom sculpture concept sketch   Custom sculpture concept sketch   Custom sculpture concept sketch

Over a few sketching iterations, I worked with B. on how big to make the mountain, relative to the boulder and Sisyphus, himself. Notice the subtle perspective shift between versions 1 and 2. Version 3 found a happy medium that balanced perspectives

Time to choose the materials and start sculpting

Because I wanted certain textures, I decided to use several materials for the model. The mountain cried out for a high-grog terra cotta that would be strong enough to support the boulder, for example. The figure, on the other hand, gave a brilliant contrast and physical detail if I used smooth polymer clay, without the weakness of the clay causing problems if I used some supports pre-casting.

After a couple of weeks, I had a draft model ready for B's approval.

Custom sculpture draft model

Wow  That looks fantastic. The scale is great. You mentioned Sisyphus’ position will be tweaked. In what way? Can the figure be more standing and pushing?

Revisions to give Sisyphus more presence

Yes, of course it can. I set about re-creating Sisyphus as a more upright figure, without the twist in his torso. I decided to rest one knee on the ground for stability, and because if I were going to push a boulder up a mountain for eternity, I'd probably use all the leverage I could get.

Custom sculpture draft model

Wow, Melissa.  It looks great. I love it

But about that mountain...

Success! But wait...

Will the mountain always be the same size? If it is a bit smaller maybe Sisyphus and the boulder get bigger. For the next mountain, could we make it so Sisyphus bottom foot is closer to the bottom of the mountain.  The mountain is large enough that it is taking all of the attention. A smaller piece of mountain would give more presence to Sisyphus. 

Once I understood B's vision, I carefully preserved the original mountain (just in case), and built a new mountain on a smaller scale. This version took us back to something closer to my original concept sketch, with the emphasis on the figure rather than on the mountain.

Custom sculpture draft model

You were right to begin with. V4 with the bigger mountain is best.

Back to the first mountain, after all. But then there's the boulder...

Seeing both versions of the mountain side-by-side really helped us get a feel for how perspective shifts with the size changes. While this new version did make Sisyphus stand out better, the feeling of effort faded. So we went back to the previous version (and its carefully-preserved mountain).

As I studied the pre-final, I realized I wasn't happy with the boulder. I had collected more than a dozen rocks while out hiking, but none had the right size, shape, and texture. I decided it was time to go to extremes.

I made my own boulder.

Sculpted terra cotta rock   Sculpted terra cotta rock   Sculpted terra cotta rock for custom gift sculpture

Molding, casting, and finishing

After some final prep work, it was finally time to make the mold. My Kinder Half had built a marvelous mold box for me (he's the one gifted with wood-working skills), so I set everything up with some heavy-duty clamps and proceeded to the mold-making process. This took a few days, condensed by magic into a few photos:

Mold box for custom cast-stone sculpture  Mold box for custom cast-stone sculpture  Mold-making for custom cast-stone art

Final private-edition sculpture

The copies each took a couple of weeks to fully dry, paint, wax, varnish, and cure. I used several layers of waxes and varnishes to achieve the right contrasts of sheen, depth of color, and visual texture. I was truly thrilled with the final sculpture, and hoped B. loved it, too.

Custom handmade sculpture by Small Company Artworks

Custom handmade sculpture by Small Company Artworks

Handmade cast-stone custom sculpture by Small Company Artworks

Since B. was (sort of) local to me in Los Angeles, we met in-person to deliver his sculpture. To my delight, he loved them, and said he couldn't wait to gift them to his business partners. 

When I spend so much time and love on a piece of art, I find myself sad to let it go. This time proved no exception, but I did walk to the car feeling deeply satisfied and elated that B. was so happy with his sculpture.

Custom gift sculpture by Small Company Artworks

What do you think? And who's your favorite Greek king? Hit the comments!

Want your own custom sculpture (of Greek kings or otherwise)? Send me a message and let's get started!

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