Life Mask



I love my life mask! It’s the middle one in the above photo. The mask to the left is one I made while living in Mexico. The one on the right was done by an unknown Mexican mask artist.

My life mask was done by an artist friend when I lived in Frankfurt, Germany in the 70s. She was preparing for a mask art show and had asked me to model several different masks. As I tried on different ones, I was amazed at the freedom I felt when I hid my own identity and allowed myself to become something I wasn’t. Or was I?

She suggested she do a life mask of me to display at the show. We met one afternoon at a craft studio for the casting. She said that President Abraham Lincoln had two life masks made – one in 1860 and another shortly before his death in 1865. She went on to describe the ancient tradition of death masks, always done shortly after a person’s death, and how many cultures believe that death masks breathe life into the dead. Comforting, I thought.

She detailed the procedure of making a negative cast of my face, which would be a mold for the positive image. She warned me that it might feel weird and get warm, but that she would be right there the entire time to make certain all went well. She established a set of signals I could use if I felt uncomfortable in any way. I assured her, “I’ll be fine.”

She greased my face liberally up through the eyebrows and hairline, and explained the importance of covering all hair so the cast could be easily removed. She told me to just relax (easier said than done) and covered my eyebrows and hairline with thin tissue, then began stretching strips of wet gauze around and across my face. When she covered my lips and slightly opened mouth, I wanted to scream, “Stop! Let me out of here.” But I didn’t, and she continued spreading the wet gauze across and around my nose. “I’m leaving holes so you can breathe, she said.” Oh that!, I thought, gasping for air.

Slathering more and more layers of the wet mixture, I wanted to give her a signal that I desperately needed to leave the scene, but instead figured if others had done it throughout history and survived, I could as well. Besides it was a great way to preserve my image at age 30. I also knew, as an artist, how important this exercise was to her. So I tried to calm the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety as she continued to patted my face and assured me it was becoming smoother and smoother. “No rough spots allowed. Perfect,” she said, finally, and left to clean up while the mask dried and set.

After about 20 minutes), it started to itch. I held up my hand to signal the discomfort. She told me to start gently moving facial muscles to loosen it while she slid her fingers under and along the edges, to lift it up and away.

“Whew,” I said, taking a deep breath.

“Wow,” said her assistant, another artist, “I want to have mine done.”

“Only problem,” my friend said, “is your bushy beard.”

“It’s fine,” he said, “I’ll lather it with Vaseline.

“I’m not so sure it will work,” she said.

“Of course it will,” he assured her and insisted on having his life mask done.

One hour later, no matter how hard we tried, the mask would not come off. He was starting to panic. I could see it in the wild of his eyes. I kept telling him it would be fine, that we would call for help.

We got a hose and sprayed water around his face. The mask didn’t budge.

Three hours later, the fire department arrived to help cut the mask off his face; beard and all. Ouch!

He laughed when said he would wait and have another done after his death … or at least wait until he was clean shaven.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on a life mask. Would you consider having one done?

5 Replies to “Life Mask”

  1. Hello Susan!
    Am so enjoying your blog posts as well as Doug’s. This one is particularly resonant with me because I did a face-cast of my friend in the 80’s when I was doing a Fine Arts Degree. In our case, I made a rigid airway of two rows of staples fitted together to make a rectangular tube, wrapped round and round with masking tape. The instructions in the assignment explained that as the plaster hardens, the jaw can get clamped shut! This tube I put between her teeth so she could have something to breathe through but her nostrils were also kept (fairly) clear. I didn’t want to put straws up her nose since this would have raised the sneezing risk… Still, when someone is anxious, breathing can become difficult through such a small space.

    To form a barrier I used Vaseline as well, but the odd eyebrow hair still managed to come away and so formed part of the final casting. (At least the eyelashes remained unscathed!) The plaster of paris was painted/laid over her closed eyes as if it was a death mask. She was very brave. Actually I only really have a full and clear insight now, after reading your account, as to how horrid it must have been. I did get very detailed feedback later but I have to salute her all over again!!

    I don’t think I could do it as the ‘castee’… But it is cool to have that sort of 3-dimensional record. And to gaze at your own face as a sculpture must be a pretty unique experience.

    1. Dear Savrya,
      Glad you enjoy my blog and Doug’s. Fascinating about your experience with mask art as the artist. Funny about the sneezing risk. My friend also avoided straws. She placed two between my lips to keep them open but removed them when the mask started to harden. Being the ‘castee’ was weird, but seeing my young face staring at me is a treat.

      Where did you do your Fine Arts Degree?

      Thanks again for reading the post and telling me about your creative adventure.

      1. My reply to you became rather long, Susan so thank you for your lovely comments. I did part of a distance learning degree through UNISA which is the University of South Africa. Even now I still think it would be good to finish it… and then I lie down till the feeling passes. XD

  2. I enjoyed reading this post about masks. Didn’t know that about Abe Lincoln – interesting. What a fantastic experience for you. Would I get one? Hmm … yes, but I’d have to do some deep breathing I think, to remindmyslf not to panic! Love the anecdote about the assistant!

    1. Kate, just seeing your comment. Thanks for reading the post and taking time to comment. Looking back, I’m so grateful to have done this. My face is so different now. It feels like looking at my innocent self.

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