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Amber and Her Gorilla
by Tom McCall

Our very own multi-talented member Amber Robinson didn't know exactly what she was getting into when she agreed to be the artist that would transform a gorilla into a work of art.  Not that Amber was new to working on the City of Saint Joseph's Public Art Sculptures, she had worked her magic on several of them before.  However, this particular sculpture was a little bit different.  Did I say a little bit different?  Maybe I should have said a lot BIGGER different.  I would like to tell you the story about Amber and her Gorilla.

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First let me explain that the City of Saint Joseph has had Public Art Displays consisting of fiberglass sculptures for several years now.  They start out as a blank sculpture of something, such as Carousel Horses, Bears, Cars and Boats in the summers and even Snowmen in the winter, which are then prodded and poked, mangled and manipulated, fitted and formed, sculpted and sanded, painted and polished until its time for these wonderful creations to be revealed to the public.  Where kids of all ages are themselves transformed into giggles, smiles and laughter when these amazing sculptures are seen.  Shutters click and flashes flash as the pictures are taken, sometimes just of the sculptures all alone or with an adult or two, but most of the time its while they are being caressed and climbed on by the children.

  Children who are dragging their parents and or grandparents to the next one they see as they yell and laugh and climb and grab and pull or push on everything as their imaginations run wild.  Parents and grandparents are constantly trying to get them to stay still for a minute so they can take a picture or two.  But make no mistake, the parents and grandparents alike, who are looking at these creations with a different set of eyes, are truly amazed and enjoying them too.

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So lets get back to the story about how we go from blank sculptures to amazing creations.  I think a little show and tell is in order, so we'll provide some pictures to go along with our story.

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Twin City Camera Club became the sponsor of one of the St Joseph 2009 Surf 'n Safari wild animal sculptures.  Amber was asked and agreed to be the Artist.

The waiting is over, the truck arrives.

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   Anticipating getting started because time is short, Amber awaits the delivery of her animal sculpture.  Then near the end of February, in the twinkling twilight, a large truck arrives at the St. Joseph City Public Services complex.  From the truck, large boxes wrapped in plastic and labeled "FRAGILE" are unloaded and moved into the buildings.   In one of the buildings, a box is opened, revealing a white fiberglass gorilla packed carefully inside.  When it was removed from the box or maybe it's the other way around, when the box was removed from the gorilla, it was apparent that this gorilla, now out of the box, looked totally different than what was expected and it was big, really BIG, over 5 feet tall and very imposing. 

Amber had been shown a brochure with a picture of the gorilla when she first agreed to be the artist.   She then started formulating ideas about what she would need to do to remake the gorilla into what she had envisioned.  Now it was clear that she had to re-think how she was going to accomplish that.

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 The picture from the brochure.

Either way, brochure picture or not, the gorilla is here and she knows this is what she will be working with.  She has just a little over six weeks of evenings, weekends, parts of lunch hours and break times, to complete all of the modifications and have it painted and ready by the deadline when all of the animals have to be finished. 

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After placing it on a four wheeled dolly, so that it can be moved around easily, Amber decides to get acquainted with the gorilla, to see and feel it from a child's perspective.  Amber wants her completed artwork to be enjoyed by all, but especially by the children. 

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Amber gets acquainted with the gorilla.

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After spending a little time getting to know her new project, one that she knew was going to consume all of her free time and then some, Amber assembles the needed tools and supplies and gets started.  Through out the entire creative process Amber always considers safety first, wearing safety glasses, protective clothing,  masks and gloves.

First is an application of Bondo, a body filler material used mainly in the automotive repair business, that will be used to build shapes and give form to and define the items on the gorilla.  Amber could envision the gorilla on a Photo Safari and for that he needed Photo Safari clothing (she was already thinking of the gorilla as being male) and a Safari type hat and a camera.   

  The Bondo is mixed with a hardener and then spread on the gorilla with a putty knife.  A lot of the shaping and smoothing is done while applying the Bondo but it always needs further work.  So a surform rasp (like a file that looks and works like a weird version of a cheese grater) is used to remove some of the material to smooth and shape the Bondo as soon as it reaches a "leathery" stage in its curing.  It will become rock hard if you wait too long, making it much harder to work with.  Amber is seen here shaping and smoothing the Bondo, something that has to be done in layers over days and sometimes weeks to get the desired look.  Since the gorilla is molded with a surface to look life like, a lot of work and Bondo will have to go into making the surface of the gorilla appear to have clothes and making the clothing appear somewhat realistic.  A total of eight (8) gallons of Bondo Body Filler were used in the project.  

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Amber is working with the Bondo.

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Amber envisioned that his Safari hat would be a pith helmet (A khaki colored fiber helmet used extensively for a jungle environment) and for that she first needed a cardboard template to get the correct size and shape.  Once fitted to the gorilla, Amber uses the template to transfer the size and shape to a piece of plywood.  Then comes the job of cutting it out and then applying Bondo to build it up to the desired thickness and shape.   


Amber is creating the pith helmet.

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In a process that never seems to be done, the sanding of the Bondo comes next.  This is a very tedious job, has tons of fine dust particles that cling to everything and is very labor intensive.  Using a power sander with different size grits of sanding disks, the job begins.  Then it is sanding, sanding and more sanding.  Amber said she used over 60 sanding disks during the process.


Amber is covered with dust as she makes the Bondo smoother by sanding.

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One of the things that Amber wanted to change is the shape of the lips and mouth of the gorilla.  She felt the children would have a better feeling about something as large and imposing as the gorilla if the mouth was more friendly and smiling.  So she decided to modify the mouth.  She removed the lips and after deciding how she wanted it to look, started the rebuilding process.  She had to work a small piece of wood with a wire attached into the hole of the mouth.  The wire was to hold the wood tightly against the sculpture so that it could be drilled and fastened in place with screws.  Once securely in place, Bondo was applied to fill in and build up the entire area.  

You can get an idea of one phase of working with Bondo by seeing how it goes on in a kind of semi-liquid state and needs some form of backing to give it a surface to adhere to.  We also get to see a small portion of the variety of skills Amber has learned to be able to work with many kinds of equipment and materials.       


Amber works on changing the shape of the lips and mouth.

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The mouth now appears open and has much thinner lips.

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Applying Bondo to the pith helmet and grinding on one of the pants pocket.

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As the Bondo is sanded and smoothed, depressions and little holes that had been air pockets appear and they have to be filled with Bondo Glaze and Spot putty, which is a paste type material that comes in a tube.  Three (3) tubes of Bondo Glaze and Spot putty were used during this process.  These small holes and imperfections are filled and permitted to dry.  The gorilla looks like it has a rash or pox during the drying time.  Then it is sanded again to smooth out the filler.  All of this is to make the areas with the Bondo and putty as smooth as possible before it is painted.


Applying a filler paste and more sanding.

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Then there is the creation of the small but important details.  For this a material called Magic Sculp is used.  It is a two-part epoxy putty, one resin and one hardener that is very pliable in its mixed form, cures to a hard solid finish that can be sanded and painted.  Amber's talent and attention to detail go into creating the special features of the shoulder epaulets, buttons, button loops and a belted band with a buckle on the pith helmet.


Amber attaches and modifies the detail items.

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The painting comes next and that requires the proper surface preparation and cleaning before applying the paint.  Amber used tack cloths, which work by causing the dust and dirt particles to stick to the cloth as it is wiped over the surface being cleaned, to prepare the gorilla for painting.  A couple of coats of primer were sprayed on most of the gorilla.  Then some more sanding, cleaning and then more primer.  After the primer dries, the masking starts and all of the gorilla will have some parts masked off while the different colors and areas are being painted.  Lots of details must be masked separately, taking your time while carefully applying the masking tape and covering materials are a must to get good looking results.  Amber used three (3) rolls of a special professional grade masking tape to do all of the masking.  Areas are masked and the unmasked areas are painted.  Once that is done and the paint has dried, the masking material is removed from the next area to be painted and the previously painted areas are then masked off so they don't get any over-spray of a  different color.  This means that a whole lot of masking is done before the gorilla is completely painted with all of the colors.  Eight (8) different kinds of paint were used, Gray primer, Black, Khaki, Almond, Leather Brown, White, Smoke Gray and Crystal Clear, for a total of 27 spray cans.  When Amber needed to paint things like the buttons and other small detail items, she would spray the paint color needed into the plastic cap from the spray can and then use small paint brushes to do the painting.

Amber is sanding and cleaning, then painting the primer coat.

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Mask, tape, cover, prepare and paint.  Wait, check, paint another coat.  Wait some more, check, paint another coat.  Next day, remove tape and coverings, mask, tape, cover different parts, prepare and paint again.  Wait some more and then do it all over again.

Amber is masking and painting the different colors.

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Painting the face and the Khaki shorts, shirt and helmet.

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The face required it to be painted black first and when that was dry Amber then used gray and feathered some over-spray onto the black for a soft transition.  Then painted the eyes black and brown with white highlights.  The mouth was painted white and a black line for teeth was added later so that it appears to be smiling.  The major areas were black for the head, legs and arms, khaki for the shorts with cargo pockets, a khaki shirt and the pith helmet, an almond shade for the photographers vest and details on the pith helmet.  Small details were brown for buttons and belts, almond and khaki for the hooks around the buttons, and a gold buckle on the helmet.  After all of the paint had dried and any needed touch ups were completed, a protective clear coat was sprayed over the entire surface area.  

Painting the details and getting ready for the clear coat.

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 The TCCC Patch was scanned, sized and taken to Premier Promotions in St. Joseph for printing onto a cloth backed vinyl material that will withstand the weather.  It was cut out from the sheet and both the patch and shoulder area were prepared with contact cement for adhesion.  Since the shoulder is rounded and the patch is flat, it ended up with some wrinkles that added a little realism.  Amber, always attentive to detail, carefully trimmed the patch and touched up the area prior to spray painting it with the protective clear coat.

The TCCC Patch is cut out prepared and installed.

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After discussing with Amber her idea for a camera, Tom McCall obtained and prepared all of the parts, assembled the camera and assisted in it's installation.  It consists of two (2) pieces of 2 x 6, two (2) pieces of a hand rail, a PVC fitting for the lens,  a piece of 2 x 4 for the view finder and a chair glide for the shutter button.  Amber found a mirror in a compact and John Smith provided a UV filter that was the exact size for the mirror and would fit into the PVC lens.  Amber painted the camera with primer and then black.  Transfer letters spelling SMILE!!!, a smiley face and letters G 1, for the model Gorilla 1, were applied and complete the camera.  Amber built up the breast plate with Bondo where the camera is attached with four (4) anchor bolts.  The camera straps that were made with Magic Sculp were created, attached and painted black.

The completed and installed camera gets tested by Amber.

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 Remember back at the start of our story, I said that Amber had just a little over six weeks to complete the entire project?

Well, it turned out that within that six weeks, Amber put in over 140 hours, the equivalent of 3 1/2 weeks at 8 hours per day,  working on the gorilla.  She gave up lunch and break times, even returning to work on the gorilla after camera club meetings, now that's dedication...


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Meet "Camarilla" our favorite gorilla...


The Twin City Camera Club Board of Directors selected “Camarilla” for the name of the gorilla at the April Board Meeting.

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Camarilla was sighted Saturday afternoon on May 2nd  watching the Blossomtime Grand Floral Parade from one of the islands on Main Street in St. Joseph, Michigan. 


Camarilla at the Grand Floral Parade in it’s 103rd year.

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 The idea of the mirror in the lens is for the reaction of the children when they see themselves in it when they look, we watched and they always do, causing lots of finger pointing, yells to family and friends, and bringing giggles, grins and gales of laughter.


Camarilla and the children at the Grand Floral Parade.

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The public gets to see Camarilla and all of his friends at the sneak peek Stampede when all of the Surf 'n Safari animals roam Ship Street downtown St. Joseph on May 16th.

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Camarilla and friends at the unveiling on May 16th.

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Camarilla is Home !

“Camarilla” came home and will be keeping an eye on things out in front of the Aire Wae Barbershop until October.


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About the Artist

 When you get to know this lovely young woman you'll find that she is much more than a wonderfully multi-talented artist and photographer. 

Amber Robinson is a Southwestern Michigan native and her interest in art began while she was in middle school.  It was from art that she developed an interest in photography.  It's clear to see that Amber's love for art, complemented by her love for photography, really came together in her creation of "Camarilla" the Gorilla.  For the past six years, Amber has been an active member of the Twin City Camera Club, expanding her knowledge and appreciation for what photography is all about. It was the members of the Twin City Camera Club, who are always on a photo shoot, whether it's a far away safari or at one of our wonderful local events, that inspired the design of "Camarilla".

You will be able to see some of Amber's photography in an upcoming exhibit at the Box Factory for the Arts. You may have seen and enjoyed some of Amber's earlier creations in several Saint Joseph Public Art displays. Amber was the artist for the "Built Wolverine Tough" Car and was part of the team that created the "Lightning's #1 Fan" Car, both in 2007.  Amber and another artist created the "Sam the Snowman" Sculpture, also in 2007.  "Sam the Snowman" is still being used and can be seen during Saint Joseph's winter displays.  Amber also enjoys participating in Saint Joseph's "Chalk the Block Art Festivals".

Amber expressed special thanks to her fiancé, Michael Tibone and Twin City Camera Club member, Tom McCall, for all of their help with "Camarilla".

Amber says "Camarilla" is prepared to take your picture (just look in his camera lens) and would love to be in a smiling photo with you.


You never know who might be in there looking out at you.


Smile you're on Camarilla Camera !


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 Now through October 2, 2009, you can see all of the safari animal sculptures downtown St. Joseph.  Find all 29 of the artistically painted colorful creatures, kids of all ages will love them.  Visit the website to learn all about it, read about the Artists and you can download a brochure with photos of the animals and a listing of their locations.  Surf n


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Photo Credits:  All photographs in this article copyright © 2009 Amber Robinson and copyright © 2009 Tom McCall, All rights reserved.




Additional SHADOWS AND HIGHLIGHTS - Archive Pages:

 - Death of Member Don Hunt

     - Death of Life Member Richard "Dick" Lyon

   - Life Member John Penrod Honored for 50 years in business

   - They call them Megagraphics

    - Amber and her Gorilla - You are Here

   - Ken McKeown featured in local publication

          - Lauren Strach featured in local paper

          - Curtis Drake featured in local paper




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