Face value: CMU art students capture their images for posterity
Carnegie Mellon University art professor Ron Bennett stands between some of the aluminum masks he and his sophomore art students have cast over the past 15 years in the basement of The University Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
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The faces stare back at you from the wall.
Some seem normal enough. But then you notice that one has a pig snout and ears. Another has flowers for eyes. Another has a tiny action figure jutting out of its forehead.
And what's that in the corner? It's a frying pan, with two faces and a spatula lying inside.
The setting for this startling array of visages is the basement of the University Center at Carnegie Mellon University. Cast in aluminum and welded together in striking collages, the sculptures represent 15 years of work by art professor Ron Bennett's sophomore students.
But they are much more than that. The faces are also a burnished time capsule of who these students were and what was important to them when they cast their countenances upon the world.
The collages also include a personal history of Bennett himself. Every two or three years, he creates a sculpture of his own face and fits it in among those of his students.
The professor plans to retire in three years. As fate would have it, there are just enough empty spots left on the University Center walls to accommodate his remaining collages.
This is the story of one of his classes, and the journey its students made this year toward their place in the hall of faces.
The introductory sculpture class began this year on Aug. 27, when 13 young women gathered in the dusty, utilitarian basement of Doherty Hall.
The course is designed to teach the basics of 3-D modeling and metal casting. But its focus on faces began almost as a joke about 20 years ago. Bennett was teaching an advanced sculpture class when one of the students said, "Let's leave ourselves for posterity and put our faces on the wall."
Bennett welded the resulting face masks, including his own, into a circle, and hung them in Doherty's basement. And when he did that, "The light went off, and I thought about how the minute I pulled my face out of that mold, I had a precious thing, you know? It wasn't just another thing for me to cast; it was something really important."
Ever since then, the introductory students have made their faces, or occasionally other body parts, using a four-part process.
First, they create plaster "death masks" of their faces. Then, they paint the insides of the masks with molten wax to create wax molds that can be embellished and transfigured.
The wax masks are then dipped in several layers of ceramic, which is fired in a kiln to harden the ceramic and melt the wax, leaving a hollow, 3-D replica of each mask inside the ceramic shell.
Finally, molten aluminum is poured into the ceramic shells through special funnels, and after it hardens, the ceramic is chipped and sandblasted away.
The first group to go through these steps this year was sophomore art majors. Reflecting recent trends at Carnegie Mellon, eight of the 13 students had been born in Asia -- in this case, all were from Seoul, South Korea. Of the rest, one was from Russia; one from Brazil; one from Canada; and just two from the United States, one of them a Pittsburgher.
At this point, more than a fifth of Carnegie Mellon's students -- 2,170 -- are Asian, and 459 of them are from Korea alone.
And while the Korean women all seemed to know each other, chattering and laughing intimately during class, none had met each other before coming to Pittsburgh, which is not surprising considering that Seoul, with 10.2 million people, is one of the largest cities in the world.
As they gathered that first week, Bennett used one of the Korean students, Jeesoo Ro, to demonstrate making the plaster mask. After she slathered her face in Vaseline, she lay down on a metal table covered with welding jackets to protect her clothing, and Bennett began to mold wet plaster strips to her face.
The plaster masks, and the wax molds that would be made from them later, would pick up the finest details of eyebrows, eyelashes and lips, as well as any other designs or figures the students added to the wax molds later.
It took only 5 to 10 minutes for the plaster to harden, pulling heat out of Ro's face as the chemical reaction progressed.
As she gently pried the mask off her face, stray bits of plaster stuck to her skin.
Soon, the students were all sculpting each other.
From the outset, the students' creativity emerged.
Viviane Kim loves Life Savers, so she clustered them on her eyelids and forehead before the plaster was laid down. Her friend, Joo Hyun Lee, put an index finger to her lips, "because I like to keep secrets."
Jackie Kook had picked up a threadbare copy of Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium is the Massage" on her way to class and held it open over her mouth and nose as the plaster was layered over top.
Her Korean friends giggled as they worked away on her. "We're laughing because she never reads," one said.
Ahyoung Sun didn't want to do her face, so she wrapped the plaster around her forearm and hand, index finger pointing. Later, she would cast a light bulb in wax and attach it to the finger. "It is an idea finger," she explained.
Flexible Bella Lee put her feet together, sole to sole, and had her friends cast them in plaster.
"I love to walk because I can get ideas when I walk," she said. "I've been to many places by myself, and from that I've seen so many different people and so many different situations, that I believe that is what has created me."
While each student had to keep her eyes closed during the plaster casting, Robin Scheines of Squirrel Hill did manage to keep her lips curved, so that when she finally levered the mask off, it had a perfect Mona Lisa smile.
After the students had painted the insides of their plaster faces, arms and feet with molten wax and then peeled the plaster away, they could begin the work of transferring their inner selves to their outer forms.
Andrea Meythaler, of Tampa, Fla., decided to honor her mother's and father's love of gardening by festooning her face with organic forms.
She handcrafted branches and tiny mushrooms to attach to them. She tried to make the flowers by hand, too, but the wax kept cracking, so she dipped silk flowers into melted wax. When she was done, with the help of Bennett's welding skills, the greenery would grow directly out of her face.
While Meythaler's mask was elaborate, Carolina Elizabeth Ramos' was the ultimate in simplicity.
The Sao Paulo, Brazil, native says she has a chronic physical ailment she contends with, so she decided to fashion a keyhole in the middle of her forehead, to symbolize how her condition has "made me go into myself and find the strengths in myself to overcome what I have to live with."
Tessa Park, who grew up in Seoul and now lives in Bronxville, N.Y., took a different tack with her face sculpture.
Instead of doing a full mask, she created a profile of her face. She then sculpted a feathered wing where her hair would be, to symbolize how her imagination soars, but also made a hemisphere of wax, to be attached to her face by a real length of chain, to illustrate her feeling that her lack of technical skill holds her back like a ball and chain.
Then there were Bella Lee's feet. The more she worked on them, the more they evolved.
To evoke how she listens to the world while walking, she crafted a set of headphones on them. Then she sculpted her own face onto each foot, one with a normal expression, and the other grimacing, because "in order to get my ideas I sometimes have to see really extreme and dangerous and dirty stuff."
By Oct. 6, the students were ready to witness the final stage of their projects, and unexpectedly, it would all take place outdoors.
When the class started, the students had been surrounded by construction workers remodeling Doherty Hall. Then, Pittsburgh fire inspectors discovered several violations and the class was suddenly shut out of its work space and foundry.
But Bennett, ever resourceful, had located a private foundry in Finleyville, operated by Bob Ferguson, one of his former graduate students. On this balmy fall day, a school bus took several of the students to the outdoor kiln and metal smelter.
The class's carefully crafted sculptures were now encased in kiln-fired ceramic shells that surrounded the empty space where the wax had once been.
Ferguson and his brother-in-law, Ken Runac, propped up the shells in sand pits and then lifted the red-hot crucible of molten aluminum with a pair of tongs and began to pour it into the shells.
So excited that she was bouncing up and down, Andrea Meythaler snapped pictures of the silvery lava flowing into the casts. "This is so cool," she said.
Sometimes, Ron Bennett says, he slips down to the basement of the University Center and just lingers near his students' creations.
"No one knows I have any involvement. The last time I hung up one of the collages, I saw kids coming off the stairways, and these were engineering students, and they would say, 'Oh, that one's new,' and they would run over and investigate.
"That's the power of these faces. I don't get that kind of response when I put a piece of sculpture out in the yard."
He sees the same attachment when former students drop by to visit.
"I'll run into students I haven't seen for five or 10 years. Often they will come in to the shop, and after the reunion talk, I'll say 'What have you been doing?' and they'll say, 'Oh, we just got back from the center to see our faces.' "
Over the years, Bennett said, the face sculptures have become more and more elaborate, almost as if each class were trying to outdo the previous one.
Whether they are fantastical or simple, though, the faces continue to exert a pull on visitors and alumni alike. Arrayed together, they have more power collectively than they do individually.
Bella Lee believes she knows why.
Before coming to Carnegie Mellon, she attended a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, and it instilled in her the idea that everyone is connected to everyone else.
"I like the idea of putting all these projects together and incorporating everyone else's feelings. I think that's a really good idea."
First Published November 14, 2007 12:00 am