Memorializing a Breast

This morning I received an inquiry asking whether I make busts of breasts.  What an unusual question. Or is it?

I remember the day before my mother was to have her mastectomy, 13 years ago.  She was overcome with the thought that she would lose a breast. She had never thought much about her breasts before until the time came when one would be forcibly removed.  My sister and I set up a video camera in her room and gave her privacy so she could express her feelings of loss and sadness.

I never saw the videotape, but I had wanted to do SOMETHING to help ease her pain.  I used clay to start a "Survivor" series of art sculptures and jewelry.  I wanted to show women going through the painful "cure" for cancer (chemotherapy, radiation, nausea, skin burns, perceived loss of femininity) that they ARE still beautiful and worthy of being happy. So each survivor necklace is hand-painted with hopeful colors and they sometimes accentuate the missing appendage - a portion of the sales goes to the Komen Race for the Cure Foundation.  Each Cancer Survivor Goddess sculpture is shining with positive energy.  Each sculptural bust is thought-provoking and beautiful.  Mom appreciated the Survivor series and proudly wore the neckpieces with many of her outfits.  In fact, "Contemplating old Wounds" won Best of Show at the Valley Sculpture Artists art competition and an Award of Merit at the California State Fair.

But back to the bust for breasts project. . .  Without anymore information from the potential client, I assumed that she wanted not just a clay representation of her breast, but maybe a casting of her torso with both breasts intact.  A body cast, like what many pregnant women do.  For many years I have wanted to explore body casting techniques where strips of plastered-coated gauze are spread over a body part(s), dried/hardened, then filled with 1/4"-1/2" of plaster or concrete or clay which is later fired in a kiln.  I have seen demos of various ways of casting, even tried using latex to cast forms, and I have made several plaster molds for some of my artwork.

With the help of the Internet, I did a bit of research on the current methods for body casting and read commentary from others who had hints and tips.  After selecting one method to try, I went to several stores to find the needed materials. Then at 4 PM, in the garage, with a black plastic sheet over the floor, I filled a bucket with water and began to cut strips of gauze.  Then I took off all of my clothes (yes, I did) and sat on the floor with dozens of gauze strips around me.  All different sizes. Very important: use lots of Vaseline on the skin that will touch plaster. Lots of Vaseline, or you may have to chisel the plaster off your skin later.

So after about a hour of criss-crossing plaster-coated gauze-like strips, my torso was covered with a hardening plaster cast.

I carefully lifted it off and set it on top of the black plastic to dry completely.

A few hours later, after dinner, I was dismayed to find that the damp garage actually softened the plaster cast! And some of the layers were coming apart!  Squeezing some glue in between the layers, I let the cast sit an hour longer, but luck was not a lady tonight! The glue had not started drying at all.  So I brought it into the warm house and let it dry overnight.  Guess what? The glue was still almost liquid and the cast still not very stiff. Arrgghh!

Home Depot had to be the answer (as usual). I bought some Plaster of Paris and drywall tape and applied another layer of tape and plaster on both sides. After a couple of hours in front of a fan, it was stiff and dry.

A 3/8" layer of clay was fitted into the crevices of the form, the excess cut away into a pleasing shape, and the form allowed to dry a few hours.

I did not want to wait for it to be leather hard overnight, so I flipped the large form over onto a towel and the clay form popped out, as hoped.  Hurrah!  After some adjustments to the clay, I took a damp sponge and evened out the rough spots.  Voila! My first body cast! Tomorrow the body will get more detailing.  The glazing for this one may end up being rather abstract or whimsical, but I won't really know until it happens.

Next time, I'll tweak this methodology a bit, but the first time ended up being pretty darn successful!  How exciting! The breast can be memorialized!