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Creating Face Casts for Tlingit Art

Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Perseverence Theater Bear Helmet
Edna Davis Jackson sm
I Miss You
Killer Whale Cast self portrait Robert Davis Hoffmann

How I Got Interested in Face Casts

My interest in casting began when I was working on set design on "Tlingit Macbeth" with Perseverence Theater in 2005, a play written and directed by Anita Maynard-Losh. See on "Tlingit Macbeth" on Vimeo. Roblin Davis was making a cast of Ishmael Hope's face and I was intrigued.

But I didn't actually make any casts until some of the props were redesigned for the performance that took place at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2007. Here are some of the casts my wife and I created for the helmets:
For the helmets, I looked for ideas from the helmets that Tommy Joseph carved for his "Rainforest Warriors" exhibit. we built the main form off a construction hardhat, then used plaster to sculpt the various features. Working with Perseverence Theater as set designer really stretched my creativity in unexpected ways. Back to casting faces for masks.

Supplies and Possibilities for Face Casting

Once I watched the process of casting faces I had to try it myself. Many years ago my sister, Edna Davis-Jackson, was casting handmade paper into masks and incorporating them into mixed media pieces like the one shown here: "Kaa-Oosh and Coho Salmon." Edna taught me how to cast paper, using organic material from our local environs. So far, I've used mostly commercial pulp, mixing in various organic fibers. I use supplies for Smooth-On to create the face mold. Their website has great tutorials for Life Casting.

Face casts are so captivating, and a person can go so many directions with this. I've cast faces in a treatment center and also in a college setting; both in which the project was one of self-exploration. Some even decorated the inside of the mask! One thing: make sure the person won't PANIC when casting their face! I myself don't get claustrophobic, but sometimes you have to keep the person relaxed with soothing music and such.

A variety of materials can be used to decorate with, depending on what the cast is made of. Sometimes they're perfect left as they are, especially if you have interesting paper. Here are a couple self-portrait pieces I'm working on, trying to decide where to go with them in terms of embellishement or incorporation into a larger mixed media piece like I did with the first piece below.

Some of My Personal Face Casts, Finished and In-Process

This piece is titled, "I Miss You" is a statement about yearning for something one can't quite put his finger on. It's a self-portrait piece with the black diagonal line representing a killer whale dorsal fin (my clan uses the Killer Whale/Seal). The metal buttons in the eyes are intended to give an empty but intense look. The adhesive lettering is intended to give a scrapbook effect. The found pieces below represent a vandalized grave. The wire coil dangling from the mask attaches to nothing, my visual pun. The metal frame is welded steel, meant to suggest a funeral pyre.


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Salmon Boy

Tlingit salmon spawn painting by Robert Davis Hoffmann
Tlingit Salmon Boy story by Robert Davis Hoffmann
Tlingit Salmon Boy painting by Robert Davis Hoffmann

The story of Salmon Boy is told as a lesson in proper relationship with the land and its resources, with the Animal Peoples and the sacrifice they make that man should have sustenance. An attitude of utmost respect is demanded, since our lives depended on the land's bounty.

As this story goes, one young boy and thrown away (or spat out) in disgust a moldy piece of fish. The Tlingit always understood that our respect toward the salmon guaranteed they would return again. The consequence of Salmon Boy's offensiveness was that he had to become a salmon, thus experiencing necessary sacrifice to become our food.

Salmon boy returned to the river by his village, where he was speared by his father. When his mother cut into him, her knife hit a copper neck ring she immediately recognized as the neck ring made for her son. She wrapped the body in cedar mat, and later the boy emerged as a shaman, who could commune with the Salmon People.

I've painted a couple versions of this story over the years. Here they are oldest to most recent:

Sealaska Heritage Institute put together a booklet (pdf) of the Tlingit Salmon Boy story, with translation, for children.

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Lifelong Learning

Eye sketch from Norm Cambell's Drawing class
Drop Cloth drawing from Norm Cambell's class
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It's quite a busy Fall!

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, I've been taking Drawing classes at the University of Alaska Southeast with Norm Campbell instructor. I've had to miss a few classes due to travel, but am learning and practicing the basics nonetheless. Here are a few samples:


I thought I had no skills at drawing real life, but I did surprised myself! What I'm hoping to take away from the Drawing classes are ways to shade or even reinterpret my existing Tlingit Formline designs.

Most of my life I've been a doodler. Restaurants that have crayons for children to draw on napkins have the right idea! I found I could pay closer attention if I drew while listening. Unfortunately, many teachers didn't agree.

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Collaboration: Yours, Mine, Ours


After a day of painting I often see designs when I close my eyes. That's one way I get ideas for designs, by either looking at other art or by working on my own. ART BEGETS ART.

Sometimes people come to me with their ideas; they will have a basic idea of what they want me to create. Sometimes people will be more particular and they will ask me to make something a very specific way. When they aren't familiar with the artform, the constraints they come up with can be challenging. Nonetheless, I work within the constraints and for the most part the collaboration is successful.

The carving below is an example of an order I recieved. The concept was "Sun Kisses Laughter" and the idea developed, actually, as I began carving and letting the wood dictate what I'd come up with. While it would have been easy to make a traditional Tlingit "sun," I like where the project took me. I embedded pyrite pieces to represent "Laughter."

Collaborations can be a little more difficult. They create constraints. Every year I design a logo that represents National Recovery Month's theme for the year, and I do this in a Northwest Coast form line style. Septermber is National Recovery Month. Keep an eye out for this year's logo. This year's theme is "Join the Voices of Recovery: Reach Out. Speak Up.

Having a theme to design is just another way of designing within a box. Collaboration is really just about making that "box" as big a possible.

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