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plaster lifecasting, sculpture and more (long)

updated tue 9 mar 99


Ditmar/Gayle on mon 8 mar 99

Hello All,
This post is in response to Theresa van Ettinger's question. I'm not
answering privately since I feel others might enjoy or benefit from some of
the information.
On a very basic level, there are two lifecasting methods involving plaster.

With one, you end up with plaster in some form ( gauze, plaster itself, or
cloth soaked in plaster ) applied directly to the model. Without getting
into the technical aspects of the process, you then have a plaster mold of
the model.
Now you can use the mold to press mold clay directly, or cast certain
materials into it. Depending on what you're casting, the mold needs to be
treated with a release to keep everything from sticking together. If the
mold is relatively "open" without undercuts, you can keep using it until
the quality of the cast isn't satisfactory. For molds with undercuts or
complex details, one cast is what you get. The mold is destroyed removing
the casting.

The second process uses a flexible or semi-flexible material directly on
the skin, and is backed with plaster gauze or another rigid material (
mother mold ) to keep its correct shape and orientation. Moulage, special
"flex or skin waxes", silicones and most commonly alginate, are the
materials of choice. Each has it's own properties and limitations.
The alginate mold is cast with plaster and you end up with an exact plaster
duplicate of the model. Since alginate is water based, the only other
common material to cast is wax.( you can't use it as a press mold ) When
cast in wax, additional molds can then be duplicated for other materials to
be cast or cast in a multiple series. If only one bronze or metal cast is
needed, the wax original can be used. An alginate mold will dry, shrink and
distort, so it can't be kept.
A silicone mold opens up the possibility of using fiberglass resins and
certain plastics to make the casting, in addition to wax, plaster, etc. The
silicone molds are durable and re-usable. (Special skin safe silicones are
necessary.... and expensive.)
Alginate and silicone molds are considerably more detailed, pores and
goosebumps, even that morning's razor cuts, show up easily.

Knowing what the finished piece should be, and a having a good knowledge of
materials, the possibilities are endless for creating pieces starting with
a lifecast.

An excellent book,
Life Cast : Behind the Mask by Willa Shalit
ISBN 0-941831-80-9
( Check out the review, summary and availability at )
is necessary reading , in my opinion, for anyone wanting to pursue
lifecasting. The book is illustrated with the lifecasts of 30 or so famous
individuals she has done and talks about the process, experiences in
casting those people and their responses. ( Richard Nixon, Paul Newman,
Rosa Parks, The Dalai Lama, Helen Hayes...just to name a few. )
Willa has been a lifecast artist for many years, and is the founder of the
Touch Foundation. The Touch Foundation sponsors a travelling gallery of the
lifecasts made of these people and others, specifically for the blind.
Going against the grain of most art shows or museum displays, this show is
designed to have the everything touched. It gives blind individuals the
opportunity to "see" how these people look.

I was taught the process by Willa in a week long seminar a number of years
ago. Her sensitivity and caring make her process more in tune with the
model and the fact that there's a human being under that layer of alginate
or plaster. The process and the finished cast can be part of a healing or
soul searching therapy. She teaches some women's classes specifically with
that in mind.

In my classes I've had the same experience. One of my students was to have
a mastectomy a week after the class. The cancer became part of the class
discussion, and a breast cast was the culmination of the class.
( Only 5 students in that class...all women.) Afterwards she used the cast
in women's group discussions and had many others open up about their
experiences and fears.

Lifecasting can be a technical process to produce sculpture in many
different media, just use your skills and imagination. The finished piece
can be a thing of beauty.

Lifecasting can also be a very moving experience, helping to overcome some
inner fears or understanding ourselves more. The finished piece can be
secondary to what we learn in the process.

There's no need to have the model lay down. Have the model siting up, wait
for the plaster to slightly thicken and carefully apply. Just like using
alginate, have gravity pull the excess off and away from the nostrils. No
straws, just be careful and work with an assistant to watch for problems.

Whew ..!

From Alohaland, Ditmar.