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H HIGGS | FIELD Study Harrison Higgs


Used in architectural restoration, compo (short for composition) is a mix of calcium carbonate, gelatin, pitch, and other ingredients.

As a molding material compo holds unique qualities suitable for manipulation. It can be used in making press molds, but unlike clay it needs no firing to achieve hardness and durability. Its “plastic” phase is reportedly generous, allowing for further working of the material as it approaches a leather-hard state. It then sets like plaster (but is reversible with steam heat).

One drawback is that calcium carbonate is a dust that likes to travel and settle on studio surfaces. Typically a foundry (or university art department) has a room dedicated to plaster. But this is not feasible for everyone, and I am interested primarily in ways the home user and maker can design and create original objects. What if plaster and other forms of calcium carbonate were eliminated from the equation?

How could one achieve this and still produce a material with the same properties of compo? Would it require a complete reconstitution, or could something less environmentally harmful simply be used in place of the calcium carbonate?


Sustainable Materials

In the age of diminishing resources, industries having no obvious connection can all be highly dependent on the same materials and agricultural crops. Gums, resins, and colloids are excellent examples, having a wide variety of applications in food science, imaging, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals production, and the cosmetic industry. The art world has long used some of these same key materials. Photographers are familiar with the technical significance of gelatin and how it helped usher in modern photography (during an era where civil war medics sometimes used it to dress battle wounds). Sculpture has used this same material as a “waste” mold for the casting process. Gypsum plaster and gelatin constitute “gesso” which is the ground favored as a base for painting. In printmaking, gum arabic plays an important role in lithography. Agar (seaweed) is sometimes used as a paper binder or sizing agent…

My interest in this topic started with a study of printmaking techniques and the associated materials involved in making plates. Finding this incredibly flexible array of materials at my disposal, I set up a foundry of sorts, but one that uses no open flame. This in turn necessitated a study of fabrication techniques. (In the end, it would have been quicker if I just taught myself ceramics and built by hand a traditional Chinese dragon kiln. But I’ve made it a life-long habit to come into things from the side door.)

This material-based exploration has grown into the center of my practice. I am currently working on sculptures that incorporate a home-brewed resin, deriving from “waste-mold” techniques of the early Twentieth Century. The small object above was one of my earliest attempts, and by surprise taught me about “sugar bloom” that you might occasionally see on the surface of chocolate.  



Group Show is a multi-year long-term collaborative project (first exhibited in 2013/14), displaying artifacts of the made world… human effects tumbling in a never-ending stream at the bottom of a well. Contributions include objects made and altered by artists, scholars, and factory laborers. The current version of this project can be seen in the WSU Vancouver Library (exhibiting March – July 2020).






About Field Study

My research currently investigates bio-based materials as a way to innovate sculptural fabrication and imaging techniques. This art-based project draws from a number of applied fields, including food science, manufacturing, and hand-building techniques used in construction (domains ultimately sharing an interest in sustainable resources). In addition to challenging the techniques and materials used in art, I am connecting this inquiry to “foundational and emergent materials” (bio-based materials and green manufacturing) found in the WSU Grand Challenges schema. FIELD Study also serves as a touchstone to my other material-based projects.