A Rare ‘Tweet’: Special Edition Cybis Bird Heads

Every now and then something utterly unexpected from the Cybis studio comes to light, such as the recent discovery of a very special limited edition from the 1980s that never appeared in any standard published Cybis literature. But first, some backstory.

During the 1940s and early 1950s Boleslaw Cybis created a variety of plaster decorations for his first two studios and also for his home in Princeton. As more fully described in the 1940-1968 Studios post, a number of these were face and/or body casts taken from life – often using his studio employees as the models. Sometimes only an expanded torso cast was taken which was then topped by a fantastical artistic representation of an animal head. Many of Cybis’ plaster creations were mounted on the walls and ceilings of the Church Street studio, as seen in the photo below.

About a decade after the Cybises died the studio was relocated to a new building; the old plaster decorations were placed in the new building’s warehouse for storage. Sometimes the Cybis moldmakers would experiment with making porcelain molds from the old plaster pieces, just for fun, and also with doing their own life masks in plaster and porcelain. Marylin Chorlton always encouraged such creative endeavors and in fact at least one casting was taken of her face and also of her hands.

Fast forward to 1981 when preparations were being made for the Spring 1982 retail introductions and the annual Cybis collector event party held at Brielle Galleries. Because the guest of honor at this party was to be the actor Tony Randall – coinciding with the creation and presentation of a special Cybis porcelain Award Bowl – it was decided that the party would have a theatrical/artistic décor theme.

This photo shows the stage erected for the presentation of the special award to Tony Randall (artist Dorothy Kaminski and Joseph Chorlton shown with Mr. Randall) with the latticework stage backdrop decorated with the plaster casts from the early Cybis studios. There is a torso cast with a bird’s head at the upper left corner. [It’s not known if these were the actual original plaster models or replicas made for this particular purpose.]

It was typical for there to be a special “event piece” created by Cybis to be available for purchase only at the Brielle parties. These were never advertised to the general public and were always a variation of an existing open (non-limited) edition sculpture but done in a different color and/or decoration from the retail version. The usual production run of an event piece was 200 but this could vary from as few as 100 to as many as 400. Most were not individually numbered.

The event piece that was decided upon for the Spring 1982 Brielle party was unique in several respects.

The 1982 Bird Heads

Because the studio did not want to duplicate the Award Bowl that they were giving to Tony Randall, the event edition item had to be different but also coordinate with the party theme. It was decided to use the beaked bird head that originally was atop the body cast decorating the stage.

These are impressively sized pieces, each 18.25” high overall including the wood base (this is the same base that Cybis was using for their Eros child head bust at the time) and 14.5” across at the widest point.  Notice that the left and right sides of the bird’s crest are different and thus offer a choice of effect depending on positioning. These are not only very dramatic but also a striking departure from what one would normally expect to see in any post-1940s Cybis pieces. Unfortunately we were unable to attend any of the 1982 or 1983 Brielle parties because if I had been there I certainly would have remembered these firsthand!

The material is, of course, bisque (white) porcelain. All have the Cybis signature and an individual sculpture number applied in brown paint. It appears that some examples also have the Cybis phoenix logo mold impression in the same area but some may not. The presence or absence of the mold impression(s) has no bearing on authenticity (these all are genuine Cybis) or on value.

These are the only two examples of these bird heads I have seen to date. One is #13 and the other is #24.

This was the only time that the Cybis studio created a replica of a “legacy” (a circa-1940s original Boleslaw Cybis) design to offer to collectors

No other replicas of any of his 1940s plaster decoration pieces were ever made available in this way or as part of the studio’s normal retail  production.

This was also the only time that Cybis offered a gallery event piece that did not have a standard-retail counterpart/base. Every other gallery event item I’ve seen has been based on a previously introduced retail issue: for example, Wendy (introduced in 1957) had several ‘event’ iterations during the 1970s, as did Pandora (a 1967 intro with 1970s and 1980s event versions), the Funny Face clown head (1976 intro with several later event variations), and quite a few others. But these bird heads were never offered before the 1982 Brielle party, and were never offered anywhere again by Cybis afterward.

I have confirmed the circumstances of the bird heads’ creation with artist William Pae who was at the studio during that time and assisted in producing the molds for this project. The ‘cleanup’ and delineation of the detail work was then done by Susan Clark Eaton. When a plaster figure is cast as a porcelain mold the nuances of the details are often lost and thus need to be brought into sharp focus again, so to speak, by hand. Susan was a freelance designer who worked regularly with Cybis during the late 1960s through the early 1980s (almost all of the carousel horses are her work.)

Unfortunately there are two pieces of information that I have been unable to determine: the size of the edition, and what the purchase price was at the event. These are tough to estimate. As a point of comparison, the special-decoration version of Pandora (named April) was offered at a 1983 gallery event for $345; this is a much smaller figure (only 5” high; see it in this post) and was also a much larger production run (400.) The bird heads are much bigger and also incorporate a base but they also required no painting or applied decorations, as April did. So it’s really hard to guesstimate what the bird head’s price point could have been.

As to edition size, Mr. Pae and I both agree that it would definitely have not been more than 200, and possibly as few as 100.

I am very grateful to Chase Underwood of Estate Solutions of Tennessee for bringing these very unusual and unique Cybis bird heads to my attention. They are part of an estate sale to be conducted by them on April 26, 2019 with certain especially unique and/or unusual items being offered in a separate online-auction sale section rather than merely locally. These Cybis bird heads certainly qualify as that, and so due to the rather extraordinary circumstances surrounding them I am temporarily bending my “never advertise any Cybis for sale” rule just this once and for this very short time.

The auction sale page for these two Bird Heads (offered separately) plus a Golden Clarion Lily can be found here.

Also my sincere thanks to Chase for providing the above photos; additional/different photographs showing multiple views of each sculpture are included on their auction listing page at the above link.

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