Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Howard Pyle Mask

A Howard Pyle Mask © 1998 by Ian Schoenherr

I've always been fascinated by life masks and death masks and I used to dream that I would discover a mask of Howard Pyle. But I never did.

So I made one. I gathered all the Pyle photographs that I knew of and constantly referred to them as I sculpted his face in dull green plastiline. And while I wanted to replicate Pyle's peculiar and elusive features, I also wanted to capture something of his spirit or his personality. It was meditative and yet obsessive work, and at one point it became known simply as The Head. "I'm going upstairs to work on The Head," I'd say. "How's The Head coming along?" people would ask.

Finally, The Head was "finished" - or at least it was time for me to stop tweaking it. Next, I created a latex mold and - crouched in the cellar with a bucket of water, a scoop, and a bag of plaster - I made a series of casts and distributed them to people and institutions that I thought might appreciate having Pyle's face beaming down at them.

Since "finishing" I've found many more photographs of Pyle, but I think my sculpture will do as a three-dimensional likeness - until a real Howard Pyle mask comes to light.

I should add that one of Pyle's New York friends, critic and essayist Laurence Hutton, accumulated an amazing number of masks and wrote a few articles about them for Harper's New Monthly Magazine - later published in book form as Portraits in Plaster (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1894). I'm convinced (but have no proof!) that Pyle saw this collection during one of his visits to the Hutton household - and now you, too, can see it here.

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