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Frances L Spiegel

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Getting Plastered?
By Frances L Spiegel   

Last edited: Sunday, June 03, 2001
Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

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Not what you're expecting!

There is no doubt that photographs are not only a lasting record but can also provide a rich source of entertainment. Proud parents flip through endless photos of their children's achievements and loving grandparents proudly present the latest prints of their grandchildren.

How many of us, I wonder, can gaze rapturously at a life cast of their loved one? Very few, I suspect! The facial life cast is part of the much longer and highly detailed process of creating a theatrical mask. It is not usually a service offered to the public.

Our life cast was performed because my husband volunteered to be a guinea pig at a teaching session! Now that cold, bare, white plaster likeness watches us from its place in our rogue's gallery where it is carefully posed amongst the family photographs. Reactions to it vary: friends think it strange, uncanny, disconcerting, but all are intrigued.

After donning protective clothing my husband took his seat in what can only be described as something akin to a dentist's chair. I expected the tutor to lower the chair into its reclining position. But, no, he explained that that could actually be extremely dangerous because the model might suffocate.

I shudder as I recall my husband's nose and mouth disappearing under a shroud of warm alginate. I watched the colour drain from his knuckles as he tightly clenched the arms of the chair and wondered if he was going to panic. He did not. This was the initial test to check that Ron would cope once his entire head was encased in plaster. We were all set for the facial life cast to go ahead.

Throughout the procedure safety is of prime importance. Before commencing the technician confirmed with Ron that he was not suffering from a cold or bronchial problems. Ron had to practise blowing out through his nostrils to ensure that he could expel any alginate or plaster that may become lodged there. He also had to agree on, and practise, an emergency signal if he felt that at any time he could not breathe. A qualified nurse was in attendance during the casting session.

Ron's head was covered with a latex bald cap, the type used to hold the hair down when wearing a wig. Ron made a joke of sniffing the spirit gum used to fix the cap in place but was firmly advised against this by the technician.

Once the preparation was complete the whole head was covered with warm alginate. Ron could breathe only through his nose and his airway was continually monitored.

The alginate forms the initial impression. It takes only a few minutes for it to set to a rubbery texture. The excess alginate is trimmed off to form a clean edge. The entire head is now wrapped in strips of wet Plaster of Paris similar to that used in hospitals. This adds strength to the alginate impression. If the Plaster were not applied the alginate impression would be too flexible to work with.

The plaster cast sets quickly and is removed from the head. This forms a mould that must be carefully filled with plaster and allowed to set. When the external plaster bandages and alginate impression are removed the end product is a positive plaster cast of the face.

The result shows every facial detail perfectly. If the process were continued to its conclusion the artist would use the life cast to create a mask such as those used in film and television.

Of course, what you do with the cast is up to you. Many of our visitors find it too strange to contemplate, while others are totally fascinated. One thing is for certain - visitors will always find something to talk about in our house!

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