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?