12" x 12" x 6", styrofoam, spackle, synthetic sponge, plastic, wax, caulking, acrylic and lacquer paint, wood, wood stain, spray varnish, 2018In 2014 I embarked on a huge adventure to do 100 paintings on the theme of World War One called To the Sound of Trumpets, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of that war. For roughly nine months I was steeped in research and sketching and painting and by the end of it I was emotionally exhausted and artistically drained, but I was largely satisfied with my efforts, knowing I did my best. You can view a short video of those paintings (the accompanying music suits the mood very well).
I knew I needed more than 100 ideas to make sure the 100 I did paint were the best ones, so I brainstormed a great deal and filled my notebook with more than enough ideas. I ended up with a few extra ones that were pretty good, ones I would have liked to have painted, but there just wasn't enough time (the show opened on 11 November 2014)...and I already had 100.
One of those ideas was a big cake adorned with toy soldiers...
In the course of my research, I discovered that another term for the colourful sprinkles often decorating cakes (and cupcakes) is "hundreds and thousands," and, since that's about how many men died each year in the war, I quickly came up with a way to put that idea to use in the form of my four cupcake paintings (one for each year of the war).
The painted cupcakes.
Immediately to the right of the four cupcakes is a painting of a young girl celebrating the end of the war on November 11, 1918 in Toronto (the last painting completed for the project, hung –still wet– the day before the show opened), which served as the "happy conclusion" to my endeavour seen here on the final and bittersweet "Remembrance" panel. I wanted to make the cake (sketched below) to firmly close out my project and act as a centrepiece, but there wasn't any time left.
Original cake sketch from 2014.
For the main project, I had done a painting of a soldier's skeleton underneath a field of pretty poppies under a sky of pretty clouds. This cake combines that element with my initial idea of a cake with white icing (a snowy field) covered in "hundreds and thousands" of plastic army men (dead soldiers).
And that brings us to Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum est" (translated as "It is Sweet and Honourable to Die for One's Country" and the original title of this piece before I decided on something more descriptive). The poem's title takes on new meaning here: the buried skeletons are intended to undermine any glibness that may be construed from the ironic twist of the title coupled with a faux confection (just as the buried skeleton in "Asleep in a Foreign Soil" is meant as a Memento Mori of what we're really remembering on Remembrance Day, dismissing the prettiness of the floral landscape and underscoring what lies beneath the poppies we wear on our lapels).
Before I started any work on this I needed to see if I could acquire appropriate army men –not too big, but not too small– and just about any kind would have served my purpose. Having recently become accustomed to figuring out relative scales of miniatures for my modelling projects, I felt 1/72 scale soldiers seemed like a reasonably manageable size to work with. As luck would have it, there happened to be WWI Canadian Infantry sets available, and, once I'd made that discovery, having found the most appropriate figures possible, I knew I had no choice but to go through with this project.
Multiple sprues like this.
The figures were a soft plastic, which made it easier for me to trim off all their bases so I could have just the soldiers and their gear. Still, it was quite a challenge to avoid slicing their feet off.
Map of contents.
There was a good variety of poses to make things more interesting, but identical poses wouldn't have been a problem. I couldn't figure it out when I took this shot, but that sole soldier lying down at bottom left holding a round ammo thing should actually go with the Lewis Machine Gun guy at bottom right.
420 soldiers cut and cleaned-up.
It took me a very long time over multiple sessions to trim off all the bases and extraneous gear, but they look pretty sharp and I'm happy I made the effort.
...and grouped for counting.
I needed to know exactly how many guys there were so I could determine how many colours to use.
Pile of men (B&W).
They look terrifying all piled up like this and, for a very brief moment, I considered just having this as a project and ordering more guys for the cake...but doing the cake is enough; I am now done with World War One.
Pile of men (colour).
Even in colour, this is kind of a horrific image to me.
Surface area test.
After I got a proper head count I spread them out to get a rough idea of the size of cake I'd need to make (yes, I took into account the side surfaces, as well).
84 x 5.
I bought five packs of 84 figures and that seemed like a good breakdown of colours to create the "sprinkles," so I just rearranged them (pretty much) back to their original groupings.
Medicinal or recreational?
I started this project in the winter (2017-18) and, with all my other projects going on, I never really knew when I'd get a moment to work on the cake, so each phase had to be compartmentalized, able to be set aside for an indefinite period. Here, the soldiers are bagged in their groups, waiting for me to find some time to paint them.
Ready to paint.
I had suitable blue and green Tamiya rattle cans left over from my Fence Truck build and we had some other good, useful colours in the workshop, so I put 'em all together for when I had time (and warm weather) to paint out in the workshop.
Painted and mixed.
They look great all painted up like candy. Though not as terrifying as the earlier monochromatic pictures of the pile of soldiers, I still find this one dark and twisted in a different, disturbing way.
Cake takes shape.
I was thinking of using insulation foam for the cake but Krista said she had a bunch of styrofoam left over from another project and that I should give that a try. I was hesitant because I know how messy this stuff is with all those pebbly particles compared to the more uniform pink foam, but I gave it a shot with a very sharp blade and it worked well. Here, two pieces have been glued together with Weldbond and taped until the glue cures.
I thought I'd have to carve/dig/poke holes in the foam to replicate the cells of an actual cake but then I saw a few tutorials on YouTube where the crafters used sponges. Perfect! It's so realistic that I was glad I took so long to get to this stage because this saved me from putting in a lot of unnecessary (and, likely, inferior) work.
Indeed, regular dish-washing sponge is the perfect material for making fake cakes. I used brown acrylic paint for the chocolatey goodness. I cut a channel in the middle of the sponges to make it look like there are two layers of sheet cake (and allow for better spackling adhesion).
I tried masking off the brown parts to protect them from any spackle disaster, but the tape didn't hold, so I had to be extra careful doing something I'd never done before (when I put icing on cakes it's not like this!).
It was easier to spackle the sponges while they were still separate from the main cake, but, when that was done, a little Weldbond and some weight later, the cake takes shape.
When I posted the above picture to Facebook, a lot of people thought it was a real cake, so that indicated I was on the right track. Keen observers noticed the Home Depot flyer underneath the cake and correctly suspected shenanigans were afoot.
Soldiers and candles added.
I pressed the soldiers into the spackle while it was still pliable and it held them in place perfectly. They're a little spread out, but that's just the first round, more will be glued on once the spackle cures.
Tiny skulls and bones.
I actually tried sculpting little skulls with Super Sculpey, but the scale was just way too small for me to do anything even remotely acceptable (I even tried carving up a soldier to look like a skeleton, but that was a disaster...I did manage to save him, though, and he's included on the cake). I looked around online and found the above set, which is not only great, but way better than anything I could sculpt at that scale with my current skill level (or ever).
I used all the bones in the set, but picked only the smallest skulls (which were still slightly larger than 1/72, but that's okay) and gave them some paint and a black wash to bring out the details.
I kind of tried to replicate the skeleton in my painting, but there weren't enough parts (a rib cage, a spine, or a pelvis would have been nice) so I did what I could. But I like how it turned out and I think it gets the idea across fairly clearly.
Test fitting on base.
I used a 12" x 12" wood panel from an art store for the base. After applying cherry wood stain, I sprayed most of an entire can of clear gloss varnish on it to make it as shiny as possible. I made sure to locate the position of the plaque (containing the Latin inscription "DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI," inspired by Owen's poem) before any staining or varnishing took place. Holes were carved into the styrofoam for the candles which were then glued into place.
The second round of soldier application had me tilting the cake at extreme angles, on side at a time, to make sure the guys didn't fall off before the glue cured. Those three guys in front are like "crumbs" left after a "piece of the cake" was cut out.
Piped and done.
All that was left to do was the final piping of "icing" along the top and bottom edges. I initially started out using the same spackle that covers the rest of the cake, but it just would not come through the piping bag no matter how much I squeezed (and I gave it a LOT of force!). I decided to then use caulking with the icing nozzle held at the tip of the caulking gun...and it worked perfectly (although my cake decorating skills clearly need improvement).
My far-fetched dream of having my 100-painting project go on tour (locally, provincially, nationally, whatever) never came to pass due to lack of interest, and many of those paintings have since been sold. So, not having anywhere to publicly display this piece come the actual hundredth anniversary in November, I decided to get this done in time to submit it to the annual Art in the County juried show here in Picton, mid-June, just so people can see it in person (and, to my immense surprise, it got in the show).
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
This was almost a job for the Small Pond Special Projects Division (which takes care of weird things and food items –especially cakes), but this ended up with the Small Pond Shipyard, since it drew heavily on that particular skill set, being closer to a model than anything else.