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Vol. LX, No. 17
August 22, 2008

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Foiled Again…and Again
Summer Intern Creates Novel Sculptures

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G.I. Joe and his comrades were MIA. That’s how Ross Noble, then age 4, began his career as a sculptor. While his youth may have suggested he use Play-Doh for a medium, he employed something far handier: aluminum foil.

“It was summer and our family was spending a week or so in Ocean City,” Noble explains. “And I had forgotten my G.I. Joe action figures at home. I was bored and rambunctious and looking for something to do. I started playing around with tin foil, making up figures and characters for my imaginary battles.”


  Intern Ross Noble discusses two of his sculptures.  
  Intern Ross Noble discusses two of his sculptures.  

His first efforts were pretty rough, he recalls, and not terribly artistic. But he kept at it, long after summer was over and he’d returned home. Noble started forming all kinds of animals and people, adding detail and complexity with each figure. Texture, proportion and positioning became important to him. The characters began to show movement and muscle. He named his craft “alumigami”—a combination of aluminum and the Japanese paper-folding art origami.

At age 13, his interests had matured. “I got into classical history,” he says, “and periods from the 1900s to about the fifties or sixties.” He sculpted an entire “Roman Legionnaire Cohort,” 50-some characters complete with armor and realistic weaponry. He forged Carthaginian battle scenes, featuring warriors with bow and arrow, riding elephants. He detailed tanks, rifles and tiny bullet belts. The figures, most of which stand about a foot tall, began to overtake his room and other parts of his family’s home as well.

“My mom made me throw quite a few away,” he says, smiling. “I think it was that cohort series. They were starting to take up too much space.” By then he was also, in an informal way, working on commission. From biblical heroes like the winged archangel Michael to caped crusaders/ video game stars like Lara Croft, from simple horses and farm animals to prehistoric creatures like saber-tooth tigers, from Halloween costumes to birthday rose bouquets, Noble was asked by family and friends to fashion just about anything imaginable. He offers his services free of charge.
Alongside OEODM program analyst Carolyn Hunter, Noble shows his special NIH sculpture featuring the agency’s logo and a double helix.
The archangel Michael, in Noble’s alumigami glory

Alongside OEODM program analyst Carolyn Hunter, Noble shows his special NIH sculpture featuring the agency’s logo and a double helix.

The archangel Michael, in Noble’s alumigami glory

Now age 19 and a business-turned-history major at Towson University, he began working this summer as a clerk-assistant in the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management. When coworkers discovered his talent, he soon populated their offices with alumigami: a tennis player poised to serve for one, a sword fighter brandishing a shield for another.

“He is very creative and artistic,” enthuses Carolyn Hunter, OEODM program analyst and proud owner of Noble’s fencer.

Depending on the level of detail, one figure can take as few as 30 minutes to make, Noble explains. He tries to save as much tin foil as possible. “If there aren’t too many accessories for a figure, I can make 6 to 8 characters per 75-foot roll of heavy-duty” Reynold’s Wrap, he estimates. “I’m a real conservationist.” He begins each figure by forming a skeletal frame, which he eventually completely wraps. Individual sculptures are built in three or four layers.

“I love putting surprises in my work,” Noble admits. “Most figures are meant to be handled. The process helps with focus and dexterity.”

His most ambitious project to date—a life-size male figure he calls “Nigel”—weighs about 35 pounds. It took him 8 boxes of foil and a month to make. Once he molded the last muscle in place, he inadvertently left Nigel standing in a darkened hall of his home, where his mom—NIH’s Helene Noble of the Office of Human Resources—was promptly spooked. Nigel now lives in an off-campus apartment with his creator.

Describing his pastime as “soothing and relaxing,” Noble says he never thought of it as art until other people began appreciating his creations. In a previous job as a camp counselor for the Montgomery County Recreation Center at Sligo Creek, he also discovered that his contentment with the craft can be contagious. During some down time, Noble was wracking his brain for an activity to occupy 8 or 9 energetic youngsters when inspiration suddenly hit him. He broke out the Reynold’s Wrap. “I had all these little kids making tin foil figures,” he remembers. “They really got into it.”

With an estimated 2,000-plus creations to his credit, Noble now hopes to expand his current clientele beyond acquaintances. He also knows he’s not the only foil sculptor on the planet. In fact, a bit of Internet surfing led him to similar crafters who sell their work. That made him realize more people might like to see his art as well.

“I’d like to get some commissions over at the Clinical Center, on some of the patient units maybe,” he says. “I just like making people happy, seeing them smile.” NIHRecord Icon

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