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Top Cat

Top Cat, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury

“Top Cat” is a bronze sculpture dedicated to the importance of animals in our lives. It is an homage to my cat, Moonface, with whom I shared my life for 15 years.

In 2019 I received the Marilyn Newmark Memorial Grant, awarded by the National Sculpture Society for a meritorious body of work in animal sculpture. I spent my grant money to make “Top Cat”.


“Top Cat” is a monument to all the cats who have enriched my life, and modeled after Moonface, whom my husband Brian and I lost just after I received the Newmark Grant last June. Moonface had an uncanny understanding of humans, collected us as friends, and charmed us with her presence for 15 years. She believed an abundance of friends awarded her very high status, and she always behaved as if she were in total control of everything in her realm.

Moonface at 7 years old
Moonface in her prime.

Moonface was born and raised on an avocado ranch in southern California, and had a short career as one of ten barn cats, which is where I met her. The barn gig lasted only a few months, and then all the cats needed homes. I was sitting outside the barn one day waiting for a friend when Moonface walked over, hopped up, and sat in my lap uninvited. I believe she chose me, and it is one of the finest compliments I have ever received. She was 4 years old at the time, a reasonably mature cat, so completely conscious of her actions.

Moonface sleeps in the sun
My 19 year old Moonface sleeps in the sun.

“Flora and Fauna”

Top Cat will be on public display for the first time in “Flora and Fauna”, a two-person show at the Loveland Museum in Loveland, CO. Fellow Loveland sculptor Kathryn Vinson is the “Flora” part of our show and carves plants and insects in stone, copper, and wood. I am the “Fauna” part of the show with my stone and bronze stylized animals. This is an all-sculpture show, and we will each have 20 sculptures on display.

Prickly Pear Sculpture
“Prickly Pear Patch”
Green Onyx, Orange Alabaster, Limestone
Sculpture by Kathryn Vinson
Marble Kale Leaf
“The Great White Kale”
Colorado Yule Marble
Sculpture by Kathryn Vinson

“Flora and Fauna” runs from November 10, 2020, through January 10, 2021 in the main gallery of the Loveland Museum. The museum requires masks, social distancing, and reservations if you wish to visit the show in person. We will also create opportunities to show sculptures and presentations online.

Larger Than Life

I have always wanted to make sculpture that is larger than life. I compare the experience of viewing a big sculpture to seeing a film image projected at full size on a screen. Suddenly commonplace things are seen as enormous, and take on a greater meaning and significance. Moonface was a most memorable cat and it is fitting that I sculpted her larger than life.


Bronze Aesthetic

I am primarily a stone sculptor. Large stone sculptures weigh hundreds of pounds, even thousands of pounds. When I can work larger than life I will choose bronze as my medium. Bronze is rich and reflective, and weighs only a fraction compared to stone.

Top Cat is my fourth sculpture in bronze, and my first bronze to really explore and appreciate the beauty of creating in metal. There is an aesthetic to every artistic medium, and it is an adventure to discover how the unique properties of each medium influence my thinking and manifest in my work.

My career in animation informs my stone sculpture to a huge extent. Bronze sculpture is an amalgam of both animation and stone. We are the sum of our experiences and it is always fun to see this expressed through our creations. Making art is a process of getting to know one’s self.

The Bronze Process

In stone sculpture I create the entire sculpture myself, everything but the base. In bronze sculpture I make and perfect the original clay version of the sculpture that is to be molded. Then I work with very skilled artisans on the many successive steps in creating the bronze sculpture.

The Process in Pictures

Any sculpture I make starts with lots of drawing. I am a planner and I love the freedom of brainstorming ideas, changing forms, modifying, switching, refining, reflecting, and arriving at a design that I cannot improve, and that passes all my critical scrutiny. The next test is: do I love it? If I answer an emphatic “yes”, then I am on my way.

For Top Cat, I first made a small 10-inch clay maquette based on my drawings. (The “love-it” test is relevant at all stages of creation.) 

10-inch clay for Top Cat
10-inch clay maquette for Top Cat. The laser enlarging process does not capture much detail, so a lot of detail was not required in this small clay.

I took the small clay sculpture to a 3-D digital scanning company that sized it up 4 times to be a 40-inch replica in blue styrofoam. Seeing the cat big was laugh-out-loud fun!

Top Cat enlarged in blue styrofoam
The 40-inch blue styrofoam Top Cat.

The blue cat needed a lot of tweaks and fixes as I covered the styrofoam with clay. This is a long reflective process and I needed to learn to see the design big—to take in the big shapes, find the new balances and rhythms in this larger context.   

The final process in clay is to make the surfaces smooth and/or textured, and perfect. This is no easy task because clay is a very soft medium. If your fingernail touches it you leave a line in the clay. A fingerprint is visible. If you accidentally bump it ever-so-slightly there is a dent. The tools to achieve perfection are a scratchless dish washing scrubby, the smooth side of a paper towel, a cleaner called De-solve-It, and a rubber-gloved fingertip. Smoothing clay to perfection is a Zen-like process.

Here is the finished clay for Top Cat
Clay applied to the blue styrofoam, tweaked and smoothed to perfection.

After the Perfect Clay

The perfect clay goes to the mold maker where the sculpture is molded in pieces up to a certain size because bronze can only be cast in molds up to a certain size. The molds create a negative space exactly like the positive form of the clay sculpture. Wax is poured into the mold thus making a positive of the sculpture in wax.

Top Cat molds for wax
Top Cat was molded in three pieces.
Waxes from head and feet molds, Top Cat
The waxes created from the head and feet molds.
Wax from the torso mold, Top Cat
Wax created from the torso mold.

The wax goes to the foundry for casting in bronze. The wax is encased in a fireproof shell coating. It is called lost wax casting because the wax is burned out of the shell (lost) leaving another negative space. Molten bronze is then poured into the shell, thus making another positive, but this time in bronze.

Top cat bronze in pieces
The raw cast bronze created at the foundry.

The bronze pieces go to the metal chaser, who welds the pieces back together again, and again makes the sculpture perfect.

Top Cat chased bronze
The bronze is welded back together and chased–all cleaned up.

The sculpture goes to the patineur for the patina. In this case, Top Cat received a translucent patina that allows the beauty of the metal to shine through. This is a first for me because, in previous bronzes I made, I wanted the sculpture to emulate stone. However, with Top Cat I wanted to showcase the glory of bronze.  Ed Darchuk created an exterior patina for Top Cat that is suitable for outdoor display.

Ed Darchuk creates the patina
Ed Darchuk creates the patina for Top Cat.

There is Still More!

The next journey was to the base maker for a two-tiered round granite base–simple, elegant, and appropriate to echo the round forms of the cat.

The final journey was to the photographer for translation of this 3-D adventure to a two dimensional image I can share with you. I have worked with photographer Mel Schockner for over 10 years and have praised his talents in several blogs. He is a master of lighting and always brings dimension, definition, and excitement to his sculpture images.

Sculpture Town

Loveland, CO, is Sculpture Town. Four professional bronze foundries are located in or near Loveland; two of which are full-service foundries. Over 800 artisans work in the bronze industry. Over 80 professional sculptors live here. Two major sculpture gardens are located here. The largest outdoor sculpture show in the US, Sculpture in the Park, is held here every summer.

Every day I am grateful for the very talented people who live and work here, and make our city a special place for sculpture.      

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  1. BB!

    Top Cat is just marvelous – bursting with personality and your lines are magnificent. You captured cats and specifically your beloved Moonface with great aplomb! Huge congrats!


    • Thank you, my lovely BB2! So glad this Top Cat captures your heart! I loved making this sculpture through all the sculpting of clay and smoothing with gloved fingertips. It brought me joy and brought me close to my darling cat.