Copper cockerel

My 2023 challenge is to take 
a random piece of paper 
from my stash of ephemera 
and write a short piece every day.

#randomsbitsofpaper 002 is slightly more cheerful than #randombitsofpaper 001.

One school holiday when I was about eleven, my mother signed my sister and me up for a few sessions of arts and crafts. She drove us to a big old double-storey house on a shady road lined with jacaranda trees.

In the back garden, there was a workshop with a covered verandah, and tables with places for twelve kids arranged so that we could all see each other. Between the workshop and the back door of the house, there was a cuboid brick structure, on the one side of which was a great big, thick metal door. This was the kiln, which did not feature in our first session; we were merely warned to stay away from it because it was very hot.

I have no memory of the face of the artist who gave the lessons. My mother seemed a little apprehensive about leaving us there in her care, but she needn’t have worried. Before we knew it, the woman was showing us step-by-step how to draw a cockerel.

She had a flipchart mounted on an easel. We started with that semi-triangular bit that looks like a shield from a long-ago battle. After each step, she would walk around and inspect our progress.

Once we had the whole cockerel drawn with the soft-leaded pencils, she handed us a rectangular sheet of copper the size of our drawing. None of our cockerels looked the same, but this surprised no one.

We turned our drawings over and placed them on the metal and rubbed hard on them until we had an imprint of our drawing on the copper sheet, which was about 2 mm thick. We were each given a cheap ballpoint pen that had run out of ink, a.k.a. a stylus with a rounded edge. Underneath our sheet of copper, we placed something about as soft as the neoprene now used for mouse pads. As we traced over the lead markings on the copper sheet, the lines appeared as ridges on the down-facing side. The task was complete once all the lines that made up our image had a corresponding ridge on the other side.

Then came a nice, messy stage. We were given little pots (with handles) of molten wax to pour into all the furrows made with our stylus, and then cover the whole of the rectangular sheet with a layer of wax on top of that. By way of a backing seal, we placed our pencil drawing of the cockerel on top of the wax and had to press down, and smooth it gently, ensuring that there were no folds in the paper or air bubbles trapped between the paper and the now warm wax beneath.

The reverse, showing signs of wear:
the drawing on paper, backing the wax, and some tic-tac at the corners.

The artistic process takes time. As a happy coincidence, so does giving twelve kids orange crush and a couple of biscuits, and pointing us all in the direction of the ablution facilities.

Painting with coloured lacquer came next. Using the limited palette shown above was extended by using clear lacquer over those parts where we chose to let the copper shine through. We had to wait a little while for the lacquer to dry, this time without the benefit of biscuits, but with the distraction of learning a new technique on the tiniest strips of copper sheet offcuts; that of stippling. We pecked at background of the image with the same dysfunctional ballpoint pen used earlier, and were told that a lighter, rather than a heavier, touch was preferable.

In an amazing feat of time management and crowd control, the teacher made sure we were all done with a few minutes to spare before the session ended; enough time to clean up our workspace and wash our hands, and for her to dole out a dollop of praise and a smile to each of us.

Stuck to my cockerel when I picked it out of my plastic carton of collected junk was a DL-sized window envelope from the car insurers on which I had scrawled passwords for three different websites, done a few sums of the kind that tell you how many words you still have to translate, and tested the efficacy of my fountain pen. Another detail worth noting from this correspondence dated November 2014 is that it was one of the items that suffered damage in the Great Coffee Deluge of that same year, as the historians’ pet phrase goes.

The scribbles on the envelope tell me that I had just launched my website. Since I no longer have the car, and those passwords have long since expired, I have taken great pleasure in tearing up the envelope and letter and tossing them in the bin, all the while marvelling at how well the physiognomically fabulous cockerel has survived. He gets to stay.

©2023 Allison Wright

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