pot heads

I've decided to name him Queequag. Click for larger image.

The gulf between conception and realization of an idea fascinates me. Many summers and many girlfriends ago, a very different Sean visited an outdoor garden center in Austin, Texas, to nurture a burgeoning interest in so-called "succulent" plants, a term generally taken to encompass all cacti in their humble and exotic forms. I was struck by the look of a rough concrete planter bearing variegated agave, and when I got home that afternoon I wrote the phrase "Flowerpot heads (Chia-esque)" in the brown leather notebook I used to keep ideas in. Several years later, I started keeping my ideas in an automatically-backed-up plaintext file on my computer, and the "flowerpot heads" notation caught my attention again during the transfer process. At first it seemed trivial; the Chia pet people had made the gag into a kind of aesthetic bad joke, like mullets and green shag carpeting. Done properly, however, I thought it could be both clever and tasteful. You know, like this:

<BAWDYJOKE>Is that a cactus in your pocket...</BAWDYJOKE>

Anyway. Googling "face flowerpot" and variations thereof turned up surprisingly few variations on the theme, and none that achieved the kind of Easter-Island-crumbling-ruins look I had imagined. So, I made one myself by wet-carving a rough-cast vermiculite-based concrete form with a knife. I followed a procedure outlined in Sherri Warner Hunter's book Making Concrete Garden Ornaments (ISBN 1-57990-318-5), and used a concrete mix given by the same source, which was 2 volumes dry vermiculite to 1 volume portland cement to 1 volume water.

Modified diagram, scanned from Hunter's book, showing molding process.

An old folding table was modified with a 24" circular rotating platform ("lazy susan") and set up in a shaded outdoor area. The lazy susan is useful during the carving stage but not essential if you give yourself plenty of room to work around the table. A worn butcher block 12" on the short side was wrapped in 3 mil plastic sheet, which was secured with packing tape, and placed in the center of the lazy susan. A tubular sheet metal outer form about 14" in height, made from galvanized sheet steel sold at the hardware store as "flashing," was rolled to a diameter of 12" and secured at the top with a small pair of vise-grips and at the bottom with a twisted loop of baling wire. An inner form, identical to the outer form except its diameter was 8", was also prepared. 20 total liters of concrete were mixed per the formula given above in a wheelbarrow using a trowel. The dry ingredients were mixed first, and the water added slowly batchwise. The outer form was set in place on the butcher block and a 3" layer of concrete packed into the botom using an improvised tamping tool with a diameter of about 1.5" at the head. The inner form was set on top of the 3" layer, centered within the outer form, and secured in place by the insertion of a tall glass flower vase full of rocks and wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. The remaining concrete was tamped into the interstitial space. 20 total liters proved to be insufficient for adequate height and an additional batch of about 8 total liters was prepared on-the-spot to complete the molding. After 3.5 hours, the inner and outer forms were removed leaving the bare concrete form, which was carved to shape freehand using a stainless-steel knife, spoons, and ice cream scoop while wet. This process took about 2 hours, by the end of which the concrete was fast becoming too hard to work. The carved piece was wrapped in two soaking wet beach towels and covered with a plastic bag and left to sit a week for curing. When the plastic and towels were removed, it was discovered that some of the dye from the towels had leeched onto the surface of the concrete, and some scrubbing with Scotchbrite pads and a mild bleach solution was necessary to remove it.

Queequag from the front, sans hair. Queequag from the right, sans hair. Queequag from the rear, sans hair. Queequag from the left, sans hair.

The only major error was in underestimating the total volume of cement needed to complete the project. This mistake necessitated the fast mixing of a second batch, which was done hastily and consequently not mixed as well. The division between the first and second batches of concrete is visible in the finished product as a line that begins just below the eyes. The upper, poorly-mixed portion is characterized by a more open pore structure, a darker color, a more crumbly consistency, and the presence of white "chunks" of unmixed cement as inclusions. The needed volume was calculated by measuring and computing the real volume of the form; the mistake was in assuming that 2 liters vermiculite plus 1 liter cement plus 1 liter water would give 4 liters of concrete. In point of fact, there should be a one-to-one correspondence between the form volume and the volume of aggregate (in this case, vermiculite) used in the mix. Thus, if you have a 10 liter form, use 10 liters of vermiculite, 5 liters of cement, and 5 liters of water, remembering to mix the dry ingredients together first and then add the water in small batches.

Queequag sin hair. Queequag con hair, which is MISCANTHUS SINENSIS, a.k.a. Japanese Silver Grass.

Lastly, a fine specimen of miscanthus sinesis, commonly known as "Japanese Silver Grass," was purchased in a gallon pot at GARDENS, of Austin. It gives a great "shaggy hair" look, and so far has been quite hardy. An aloe or yucca or agave might be used for an alternative "spiky hair" look.

Queequag in repose. Click for larger image.