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    February 29, 2016
    Inspired by Nature
    Utah sculptor takes inspiration from some of nature’s largest creatures and finds a usual medium as the basis for his work.

    By Terry Meier, EPS Specialist, ACH Foam Technologies

    Inspiration comes in many forms. For sculptor Stephen Kesler, inspiration tends to be grand in scale, magnificent in natural beauty and a labor of love he’ll never abandon.  Where the road to recognition can be endless for many artists, though Kesler has only been sculpting for about six years much of his work is already prominently displayed in public places like Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo and the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah.

    “I was really fortunate to fall into to my life’s work,” comments Kesler. Creative from a young age, Kesler recalls a lifelong fascination with aquatic life and very large, mega animals such as whales, elephants, and giraffes. “As a child I spent hours at the library studying books about marine life and drawing the animals.”

    Though his passion for the animal kingdom has been ever present, finding his ideal artistic medium was quite a bit more of a process. He began his career as a graphic artist at marketing company where he learned the finer points of digital illustration, layout and composition designing corporate logos and branding materials, websites and print pieces. For more than 19 years, Kesler thrived in his design career, continually earning promotions, recognition for his work, and coveted commissions for his employers – yet he still yearned for something different, a feeling he was compelled to explore.

    “I stumbled across Ron Muecek’s work and was really blown away,” shares Kesler. Mueck, an internationally renowned sculptor from England, achieved recognition for his hyper-realistic human figures that deliberately break from conventional scale without compromising proportion. Inspired, intrigued, and looking for a new creative outlet, on a whim Kesler added polymer clay and sculpting tools to the family Christmas list.

    From there things picked up quickly, Kesler’s first piece was a small elephant and the addiction was instantaneous. After a few years of learning sculpting techniques online and through an instructor at the Bountiful Art Center, Kesler’s big break came when he presented some of his work to long-time friend Brent Anderson, founder of the Living Planet Aquarium. The two had met 15 years earlier when Kesler learned of Anderson’s efforts to raise money for the aquarium’s construction and volunteered his web and graphic design skills. Anderson was impressed with Kesler’s early sculptures and together they conceived the full-scale whale shark and four manta rays now suspended in underwater flight in the lobby of the new aquarium.

    While Kesler’s work itself is mesmerizing, few outside of the world of sculpture would be able to guess his primary material.  Dynamic in its ability to be precisely shaped, light-weight enough to be safety suspended above the public, and large enough to accomplish the life-like scale of mega animals cost effectively – Kesler’s medium of choice is expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam manufactured just a few miles from his studio by ACH Foam Technologies (ACH). Typically used in commercial construction, ACH’s rigid EPS foam is commonly used to insulate buildings or as a light-weight structural fill for roadway embankments or roof-top plazas. Regardless of application, ACH’s EPS foam is almost always hidden from view in the completed work, while in Kesler’s work the foam takes center stage.

    “ACH’s EPS foam is really the ideal material,” says Kesler. “Though becoming an accomplished sculptor in just a few years is pretty incredible, being able to use a product like rigid foam to create these pieces isn’t something I would have ever imagined before I got started.” Kesler has large volumes of foam delivered to his studio in blocks as large as 3 feet by 4 feet by 24 feet long or precut blocks sized to his specifications. ACH’s EPS foam comes in a variety of densities, and Kesler tends to work with some of the lighter weight variations. He orders pieces in the 1 to 2-pound density for his larger work because it carves faster.  HE works with foam in the 2 to 3-pound density for smaller more detailed sculptures. In an ironic twist, because he begins with a solid mass and shaves away the foam to create his sculptures, Kesler actually returns a significant volume of the foam he purchases back to ACH so that it can be recycled and reintroduced into the manufacturing process to make new material. He laughs when he shares that his recycling record is eight large trash bags filled with foam shavings created in a single day.

    The process for Kesler’s work begins with a maquette, a small-scale version of the finished composition shaped from modeling clay. From there he works with structural engineers to develop a 3D model of the sculpture’s internal support system, which is fabricated from steel. The foam blocks are cut to the rough sizes required for the full assembly and then attached to the steel frame using a two-part polyurethane liquid adhesive. Kesler uses a hot wire cutter to remove the initial layer of excess foam, followed by various chainsaws, reciprocal saws, rasps, files, and continuously smaller tools, and sanding devices working into the foam as the animal’s detailed form takes shape.

    In Kesler’s work, true-to-life accuracy is essential to creating the moment of astonishment when a child looks up and sees a life-sized humpback whale swimming down toward him. For reference Kesler watches videos of the animals in motion while he is working on them. Though he knows the maquette quite well by the time he gets to the full-scale sculpture, he finds that realism is in taking the time and care to consider every detail of the animal’s form. From how the pleats of a humpback whale subtly change shape down the length of its body to the gill rakes along the side of a whale shark fluttering mid-turn, Kesler insists that he has corrected a lot of mistakes by watching videos of his subjects.

    Once the foam shapes are fully assembled, carved, shaved, and sanded down to Kesler’s exacting expectations, they are covered with a special hard-coat application whose composition ultimately depends on exactly where the piece will be displayed. Sculptures meant for outdoor displays are covered in fiberglass for durability. Indoor pieces are covered in a special Class A fire rated compound that passes building code requirements. Kesler suggests that finding the right combinations of chemical adhesives to accomplish the desired hard coats was a long, delicate process and now a trade secret he holds close.

    When asked what the most important thing he wants people to know about his work, Kesler’s answer is simple.
    “As a child I was inspired by these mega-animals. Not only by their size, but by their elegance and design. In my work, I hope to continue that legacy of inspiration. Hopefully the interest to understand and protect these animals will be ignited in others and the circle will continue.”

    About ACH Foam Technologies

    For over four decades ACH Foam Technologies has been an industry leader in EPS manufacturing, providing products for construction, geotechnical, packaging, and industrial applications. With locations throughout the U.S., ACH is positioned to offer convenient, valuable, and complete solutions for its customers. ACH recycles 100% of its post-industrial EPS and is actively involved in recycling post-consumer EPS as well.

    Contact us for more information on ACH Foam Technologies and its products and services.