On the workbench in his studio in Milan, plasticine artist Stefano Colferai keeps a Wallace and Gromit coffee mug filled with tools to cut, sculpt and smooth his creations. It was a gift from an aunt who knows he’s a big fan of the dog-man duo (although his favorite Aardman Animations character is Shaun the Sheep).
While Stefano works in a style similar to the classic claymation comedy series, his works capture and celebrate contemporary pop culture: a bust of Drake, a layered rainbow cake, an ugly-cool Balenciaga Triple S sneaker.
Colorful and comedic, Stefano’s quirky sculptures reflect his major interests – music, art, sneakers and food. The latter he makes quick replicas of to exorcise his cravings when he’s hungry and as an Italian, pasta, vegetables and fruit are often on the miniature menu.
The humans he moulds are often people he’s seen on the street – a hip couple playing whack-a-mole at an arcade, the döner kebab guy – but sometimes he creates caricatures of his idols, complete with sticking out ears and expressive eyes.
“When I pay homage to Amy Winehouse or Keith Haring with a portrait it’s because they represent a push towards achieving a goal,” he says. “It’s their story that distinguishes them and makes them unique and inspiring to me as a person and an artist.” Even his inanimate objects – a bowl of ramen, a pair of Nikes – are given character through tiny friendly faces, and he brings them further to life through stop-motion loops.
It was at a Disney exhibition six years ago that Stefano first fell in love with sculpted characters. He became fascinated with giving form to a flat sketch on paper. He found 3D software too complicated though, so he turned to clay. “The most beautiful thing is to see shapes come to life,” he says.
Stefano starts each figure by warming a lump of plasticine in his hands. He decides on his color palette by mixing various colors together like paint to get new shades. He then moulds the crude lumps by hand before he moves onto tools to scrape, smooth and finesse the finer details.
If he plans on animating the piece, he makes a bendable aluminium wire frame onto which he presses the plasticine. “It’s really playful because it makes my hands dirty,” he says, “and playing with organic material opens my mind to new ideas.”
The final step is shooting his subjects, painstakingly moving their limbs and facial features incrementally to perform a skit like Forrest Gump playing one-man table tennis. Through small gestures, his characters get big personalities. “Animation has opened me up to new possibilities; to say something through the performance of an action,” Stefano says.
He uses his wooden work table as the set; his tools are scattered in the background and excess bits of clay lie strewn about, giving everything a charming DIY feel. In some animations we go even further behind-the-scenes, and see his tattooed forearms as his hands mould and mush squidgy clay balls into masterpieces. These videos remind us of the craft that goes into each piece.
“I think it’s valuable to show the continuity of a story,” he says. “It’s as if I can let people enter the studio each time and let them see what I’m doing and creating in that instant. I have tried to work on backdrops or built backgrounds, but I feel everything becomes a bit fake and constructed.
“I want my images to be as spontaneous as possible. I almost never fix anything; even the mess can sometimes create a kind of pleasant noise in the image.”
In the end Stefano’s sculptures meet a rather sad end. Because plasticine doesn’t dry out, it’s endlessly reusable, so Stefano’s people and pasta dishes are reincarnated. “This is a positive but also negative aspect because I don’t keep all the things I create,” he says.
“I’m trying to work with silicone moulds to reproduce faithful resin replicas of the creations I don’t want to throw out and make them available for sale.”
Until then, we’ll just have to enjoy the pictures. “I think making people smile is the best way to leave an impression.”
Words by Alix-Rose Cowie.