The Life Casting Process is first documented in Cennino Cennini's manuscript "Il Librio del Arté", written in 1392. Herein, the life casting process is attributed to "the ancients", whether 500 years earlier or 5,000 years is not made clear, for the process of making plaster molds from the human form are now dated back to the 7th or 8th millennium BC.
What is known is that gauze strips dipped in plaster were used to cast the remains of the Pharaohs of Egypt in order to give the perfect fit to the sarcophagus that would transport them into the afterlife.
In the artist Thutmose's studio, in the deserted city of Akhetaton, what appears to be a life casting of Nefertiti was discovered in 1912. Thutmose was the official court sculptor to Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenten, Nefertiti's husband, (circa 1350 BC). In addition to Nefertiti's bust, 22 plaster casts of faces were also discovered. Thus firmly giving the area surrounding the Red Sea the basis to lay claim as the progenitor of 10 millennium of direct casting from the human form, and the beginning of this Art of Life Casting.
This process of portraiture is first found practiced in Ain Mallaha, present day Israel, 10,000 to 8,000 BC. Thought to be some form of ancestor worship, these skulls were modeled with plaster then painted in a red-brown colorant. The masks of Tell Aswan are shown to the upper left. Whereas, the masks dug from the city of Jericho show a higher degree of artistic interpretation, with the addition of semiprecious stones embedded within the plaster.
As with many of the great advances engendered by the early Arabic Cultures, this form of portraiture was co-opted by the Greeks. Using thin sheets of gold, craftsmen would create the facial structure, adding eyes and facial hair by embossing the gold with tools.
Whatever the Greeks could do, Rome would emulate. The Art of Funerary Masking reached a zenith here. Using plasters, waxes, and stuccos, the facial characteristics would be cast. During the funeral procession, mimes would act out the life and heroic deeds of the deceased. These castings would then be housed within a display in the home, reminding all who visited of the past renown of the family.
So decadent did the Roman civilization become that castings were allegedly a means of murder and suicide. As a lark, boxes would be made to fit a human. Slaves would be told that a casting was to be made of their body, a breathing tube would be inserted into the mouth, and plaster then poured in around the unfortunate. When hardened the tube could then act as a "sprue" by which molten metal could be poured in to complete the sculpture.
Supposedly, this, too, was a way that Senators could immortalize themselves as well.
For the next 800 years, this art languishes. It is not until the 1300's that castings make a reappearance in Europe. At this time a renaissance in the arts is taking hold of the continent. Rediscovering the casting process allows for Nobility to reach beyond the veil of death and touch the future with their presence. Cennino Cennini's aforementioned treatise "The Craftsman's Handbook" is published in 1392 and Edward the Second's death mask is cast in 1327.
Life and death castings now become more common place. The life casting is used by artists to study the human form, helping to improve the arts of sculpture and painting. An accusation of life casting is made against Michelangelo, yet this goes unproved and well for him as using the human body to create art is now considered heresy by the Holy See.
The art of Life Casting as documented by Cennini is an arduous process, requiring the use of a double stemmed tube for breathing, a sleeve to encompass the face, and the removal of all facial hair. This was a cumbersome plaster mold requiring 45 minutes of time. Is it then any wonder that those deemed important enough to have a casting made of their visage, would wait until life had fled the body?
While castings are made sporadically throughout the next 400 years, it is not until the 18th & 19th century that this art form reaches common acceptance. As Lawrence Hutton's collection shows, the art of casting is used to "capture" the likenesses of great leaders, entertainers, and thinkers of this time. The masks of Newton, Dante, and Wagner bring the personage of these luminaries back to life. Castings of Aaron Burr, Thomas Paine, John Paul Jones, and George Washington re-actualize American history past for those of us in the 21 Century.
Hutton claims to have found several castings being thrown away on the streets of New York City, recognizing the features of these masks, he took them home. This led him to compile the largest collection of life and death masks to be assembled. So renown was his collection that Princeton University now houses it throughout it's campus, many under glass to protect them from the ravages of time, others in their archives.
A copy of this collection was gifted to the Smithsonian in 1955, the same benefactor also gave a second set of masks to what was then Western Maryland College, in Westminster, MD. Between the years of 1973 and 1975 the Smithsonian "condemned" their castings, and this collection, too, was gifted to Western Maryland College. The Dean of the Art Department at the time, Wasyl Palijczuk realized that the original collection of masks gifted in 1956 was unappreciated and languishing. He carefully wrapped and stored this second set in the Art Department's attic, where it sat unnoticed - and thus protected until 2013.
Faculty member Linda Van Hart and former student, John Van Horn made the re-discovery of these 60 plus castings one day while the Common Ground workshops were in progress. John and Ann had been diligently documenting the remaining castings from the original McDaniel collection, in hopes of obtaining a grant to preserve what was left.
Needless to say, this unparalleled collection has now been archived where access will be much more limited, until a time when it can come to light again in a preserved manor that the world will be able to appreciate.
In the twentieth century castings have mostly been made as a means of creating prosthetics for the motion picture industry. Early silent film stars like Buster Keaton to later masters of horror: Karlof, Lagosi, and Price were cast during their employment in the movie industry.
George Segal makes his life casts using the same technique pioneered by the Mesopotamians, draping gauze strips into plaster and casting directly onto his subjects. His works are known for their realism. Duane Hanson uses silicon rubber to cast his subjects for his sculptures.
During the 1980's a revival of this art was fostered by the new seaweed and algae based dental casting mediums. At about the same time that Ann began her introduction into this art form, others were also making headway into the revitalization of Life Casting using these new materials. The detail provided with algae is off balanced by the need to make an immediate re-cast before the seaweed begins to shrink and warp. While new materials are being manufactured to offset this drawback, they are all based on plaster which has no real lasting qualities.
The last decade of the 20th century and into the new millennium sees an increased interest in this ten thousand year old process. The History Channel's "Undying Faces" documents Hutton's masks and the individual behind the face, Planet Hollywood showcased innumerable life casts of actors among other memorabilia, and the pendulum swings back to humanities desire to influence the future with our presence in the now.
At no other time in the history of this Art of Life Casting has the craft been available to anyone of any standing. Once only relegated to rulers and others of equal stature, through Ann's years of life casting there is now a body of work that documents more than ten thousand people throughout the United States and the world in a eternal work of art that itself can last for ten thousand years.
There is no better to to see why,