April 29, 2023
Coordinamento Famiglie Affidatarie is a non-profit organization in Brescia, Italy, that promotes and arranges foster care or other solutions to help youth and toddlers, as well as their biological parents, in times of need and difficulty. I have been doing their graphics for a few years now, and, as always, I was brought early on their project “Dalla parte dei bambini” (“On the children’s side”).
Dalla parte dei bambini is a traveling art exhibition dedicated to children’s rights, as defined by the UN in 1989. The CFA was organizing the event in collaboration with the HDemia SantaGiulia art school of Brescia and the Associazione Artisti Bresciani (Association of Brescian Artists), with Fondazione ASM and Bresciangrana as the event’s sponsors.
The connecting thread of the exhibition is the “Alfabeto dei diritti dei minori” (“Alphabet of Minors’ Rights”), created by artist Massimo Bertoldi, in which every letter of the alphabet is linked to an expression of children’s rights. Each of those letters would be the starting point for the participating artists, who, using different materials and techniques, would present them through their own point of view and sensibilities.
I declared early on that I would really love to participate with an art piece of my own, and then I concentrated on defining the project’s logo and the elements of its coordinated image. Work piled up and, honestly, I kind of forgot all about my own contribution to the exhibit.
When I was reminded about it and started thinking about what I could do, the possibilities were, frankly, endless. I first thought of going with the f-word, “famiglia” (Family).
Yes, Deadpool references are my usual starting point.
I thought of making a wooden sculpture of an “F” that would merely act as a gateway to the actual art piece, a video, linked through a QR code on the letter itself.
But my mind unexpectedly turned towards another direction. We were in a meeting discussing all the different material that we would produce to decorate the different venues; one of those items would be big paper cubes, each featuring letters from the original “Alphabet of minors’ rights” and the logos of the organizers and sponsors.
My mind went to my two-year-old son’s wooden letter cubes, and how it would be cool to actually make a big one out of wood. Suddenly a haunting image presented itself in its final form. Sincerely, it felt like a punch in the gut, and it brought tears to my eyes.
My pick would be the letter “G”, for “Guerra” (War).
I knew what I had to do to reach that result, and I knew it would involve things I had never tried before.
But, what is a project without a challenge, anyway?
I started building a big cube, sized 30x30x30cm (12x12x12 inches). Believe it or not, I had never made a box with mitered edges before! After cutting all boards to size, I glued everything together and marked the areas that I would then route out. For the letter G, I chose an all-time classic font: Bookman Old Style Bold. After marking everything down, I took my Dremel for a long ride; actually, too long of a ride. I killed it, and had to buy another one. I first routed out each side and then sanded it down as best as I could. The cube was, thus, complete.
I am quite certain that letter cubes are painted before routing the sides to reveal the letters, but I never like to do anything simple when I can do it ass-backwards.
After three coats of magenta paint, and after cleaning the internal edges from a few unavoidable drips, the cube was ready… to be half burned.
Thus the haunting image that was in my mind began coming to life: a children’s letter cube, half burned, as if retrieved from a bombed building, a home, a kindergarten, making you wonder what happened to the kid that played with it.
I wanted the viewers to experience the sculpture as viscerally as possible: the first step would be seeing and feeling the joy of the bright, colorful side of the cube, only to discover, upon getting closer, that half of the toy and the floor is incinerated.
I also wanted the viewers to take their time around the cube, to let that feeling sink in, so I prepared four wooden labels of short text placed around the cube; each label a step towards the completely incinerated side, and one final message.
The haunting image in my mind was almost complete; little was left before the final assembly of the piece.
I glued the bottom foam tiles on a solid base of MDF and screwed the cube onto the base. I used laser engraving to prepare the wooden labels that would sit in front of all four sides and glued them on the foam tiles.
It was complete. And I could hardly believe it.
For the first time, l could experience firsthand what any viewer would. I walked around the sculpture and started reading the labels:
The first label, on the unscathed side, reads “Since 2005, more than 13,900 attacks on schools and hospitals have been verified.”. The source of that finding is the “25 Years of Children and Armed Conflict” report from UNICEF, released in June 2022.
The two labels in front of the two half-burned sides continue to paint the horrific picture of when children meet war. The first one reads “Since 2005, more than 93,000 children have been verified as recruited and used by parties to conflict.” The second one says “Since 2005, more than 104,100 children have been verified as killed or maimed.”
One side left. The completely incinerated one. I stand in front of the cube and look at it for a moment. I observe the G on the top side; starting from the part furthest from me, I look at the gradient of colors. A smooth surface of magenta and warm, pure wood, becomes black, charred and cracked, as my eyes move closer to me. My back is facing the source of the blast. I read the final label:
“Children, more than anyone, have the right to be protected from war. Because children never expect war; it always hits them from behind.”
The sculpture was complete. A part of me wasn’t ready to give it away, but another part of me knew better: the more a creation stays in your hands, the more you feel that you can improve it. You have to let it go.
That’s when I realized that my sculpture wasn’t the easiest thing to transport. I was especially worried about the soft foam tile tabs that stuck out the MDF base; they would be quite exposed to accidental bumps.
I first decided to make an MDF frame that would expand the base, protecting those tabs. And then I decided to build an entire crate around it!
I found a few great tutorials on YouTube, and decided to follow Blacktail Studio‘s approach: starting from the base and then adding the rest of the panels. This way, the screws holding the sides to the base and to each other are perpendicular to the direction of gravity; and that makes the crate sturdy enough to lift by holding it from the sides.
The sides are made of 4mm laminated hardboard, glued to a frame made of 30mm-wide strips of 16mm MDF. It should be mildly water-resistant.
Laser etching my logo on the sides of the crate made me feel a little bit like Tony Stark…
The sculpture had a perfectly snug fit at the base, and a couple of foam puzzle tiles worked as padding against the crate’s top panel. I wanted the top panel to close tight and hold the sculpture perfectly still, even if the entire crate is on its side. Using a pair of belts was the easiest way to secure it and make it easy for the organizers to unpack and repackage.
And so my sculpture was ready to begin its own journey, through the Brescian venues of the traveling exhibit.
Almost all of the art pieces that are part of the traveling exhibit had their shots taken by my superstar photographer friend, Chiara Cadeddu.
Unfortunately, I was so extremely late with my sculpture, that it was no longer possible for Chiara to shoot it. I had to do it in my garage, the day after I was done assembling the crate. This was also the day before taking it to Brescia and delivering in to the exhibition’s organizers.
Being a good friend, Chiara gave me her best tips on setting up everything. The results are the ones visible above; know that all that came from the following setup!