January 13, 2012 — In 1974, Chinese farmers working in their field discovered more than 8,000 life-sized terra cotta warrior figures from the tomb of the first emperor of China. Since then, the figures have been the topic of research by art historians, conservationists and artists.
For 11 students in William Bennett's January Term course, "The Warrior," learning about the Chinese figures formed the basis for them to imagine and sculpt their own images of modern-day warriors.
The students are working in a "fabulous sculpture tradition," said Bennett, a University of Virginia studio art professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. "And the notion of the warrior is thematically broad."
The class drew students majoring in archaeology commerce, economics, English, history, nursing, psychology, religious studies, sociology, a student from the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies and a visiting student from James Madison University. Only one had worked in clay before.
The course began with the basics: creating pinch pots, using a technique employed since early history. By pushing and pinching the clay they learned about its properties as an artistic material. Next, they created clay skulls to learn about anatomy.
"It's important to study anatomy and start with a skull and self-portrait," said Ed Miller, a Radford University studio art graduate who works in clay and gave demonstrations throughout the course. He is a visiting professor this academic year, assisting Bennett in his classes.
In planning the course, Bennett and Miller decided that using the life-sized Chinese terra cotta figures and the history surrounding them was a good way to show the relevance of ceramic sculpture and to teach figurative sculpture.
Throughout the intensive two-week J-Term, the students created a 6-inch copy of a head of one of the Chinese terra cotta figures, a 6-inch self-portrait, a 6- to 8-inch warrior figure, a 15-inch warrior and a life-size warrior head. The group collaborated on the body of the life-size warrior, designed to accommodate each student's life-size warrior head.
For their first written assignment, the students were asked to think about the warrior sculpture they would make. They responded to the questions: What armies, global, political or social issues would the figure battle? How will the figure advance those goals?
"It's important for them to have their own stories and explain why they are doing this," Bennett said.
"They put a lot of thought into how what you make can have impact on the world," Miller said. "The issues they chose are important issues in our society."
Fourth-year economics major Brian Sheehan, who has taken studio art drawing and painting courses and is working toward a studio art minor, based his warrior on ideas he studied in a class in the Curry School of Education that focused on multicultural education. "My idea is to depict the use of language in perpetuating stereotypes by including words written right on the body," he said.
The warrior that third-year sociology major Peter Johnson built stands against the "culture of poverty" and issues that "come with those social structures," he said. His 15-inch figure is saluting, signifying a devotion to the cause. With the other arm, which is half an arm, he holds a book tightly to his body, symbolizing tenacity in the face of adversity.
Why the book? "Knowledge and intellectual capacity often are the key to escaping poverty," Johnson said.
The wings and intertwined snakes that make up the caduceus, the symbol for medicine, play a key role in Marcelia Davis' warrior. A fourth-year nursing student, she said her warrior evolved from a fighter for health maintenance to a figure coming to the rescue in a medical emergency.
Maxim Kuemmerlein, a history and archeology double major on an ROTC scholarship, said his warrior represents the warrior spirit. "Everybody has in them the warrior spirit and it's that that gets us through tough times and adversity and it won't be conquered," he said. "Warriors fight battles for all kinds of causes, in all kinds of ways."
To symbolize that, his figure has no face or hands. "It's not important who he is," Kuemmerlein said. The figure is depicted leaning as if "seeing into the future" with his wind-blown clothes billowing out behind him.
The class voted to build Kuemmerlein's figure for the their joint life-size sculpture.
Miller demonstrated creating larger sculptures using coil construction, also an ancient method. The technique allows for large-scale sculptures that are hollow and structurally sound.
Students worked in teams to sculpt the feet, legs and pelvis, torso and chest, arms, and hands.
Bennett said he is impressed with the skill the students have acquired in just two weeks. "There are people making terra cotta copies of the Chinese warriors and it takes them a month," he said.
The students' work will be exhibited in the Ruff Stuff Gallery on the first floor of Ruffin Hall, on the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds, during Final Friday celebrations, on Jan. 27 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.