In front of me is the face of Annie L.; in her early 60s, she died of a heart attack. Her face is like a ball of paper, crushed in a fist. Her mouth is a box for rings, opened and emptied. “Theft”, I think… then I hear a voice softly say “It won’t be easy, Dee”.
Working for the MacAllister School of Embalming hadn’t seemed like such an outlandish idea. My father was an illustrator and had a strange passion for anatomy. Knowing the human body gave him confidence; for him it was a sort of guarantee, the way people carry an amulet in their pocket. Who knows if his real desire was to shape bodies rather than draw them. His passion was contagious and anatomy became a path leading to art for me as well. So when I looked at or touched a skull, I began to feel I was simply shaping what was latent in a face; I felt like someone making a portrait, but my action was clearly sculptural. I wanted to create forms.
Here at the Embalming School, I handle a material that is not clay. I touch the lips, smooth the forehead, comb the hair, touch up the eyebrows, imagine the movements of that face, its character, its tics, all its expressions. Over time I have developed a technique for reshaping the faces of corpses. Slender but strong elastic threads stitched inside the cheeks make it possible to restore the skin’s tension, to keep the mixture of wax, parafin and cornstarch in place, which I have always used to fill the oral cavity and, where necessary, to restore the smooth firmness of the face. I feel that working on the head of a dead person is much more than making a sculpture: of course the sculptor’s challenge has always been that of giving life to his creation, but those faces grant me an emotion that is hard to describe. It’s not so much in the idea of imagining the person alive, or coming back to life, and it’s not the thrill of creating an illusion, or having a feeling of power over life or over bodies.
Maybe it is simply a state similar to the one certain dreams confusedly leave behind them. I’ve always known that no one would come back to life, that my hands could not restore life, but lately I have felt that the face of the deceased, in my hands, takes on a particular power, very great and very fragile at the same time; something that calls forth an idea of life as potential, an instant in which time inexplicably loses its dimension and its very reason for existing, and goes back to being absence. The thrill of this suspended moment in which I feel like something could happen, like something is about to happen.
Inspired by the life and work of Dorothea Denslow (1900-1971), sculptor, founder of the Clay Club (1928), later re-named SculptureCenter. Denslow taught anatomy at an embalming school from 1946 to 1951.
(Translation: Steve Piccolo)