Styrofoam Head With Beads

I don’t often stray away from painting but sometimes life decrees a temporary shift in course. I had to vacate the studio to accommodate guests, but a chance dumpster find of a Styrofoam head put a spring in my step and made the situation a bit less ouchy.

It’s always satisfying to make art out of things which would normally end up in the landfill, and many of my frames and painting surfaces are gathered this way. It’s unusual to do entire sculptural works based on such finds, however. It’s nice to be reminded that I can do something unexpected and new.

I began with a Styrofoam head abandoned in the alley behind our house.

Styrofoam Head

These inexpensive forms are designed for wigs and are readily available in craft stores. Other than a few dents here and there, my example was in pretty good shape. I left it outside as a lawn ornament for a week before commencing work and even that didn’t seem to faze it. I learned some things the hard way on this project so here are some tips which might be useful to others.

First, the head must be sealed before painting. I used ordinary latex house primer but have since learned that smearing the outside with Elmer’s Glue works too. Don’t use spray paint or oils or anything with a solvent in it. Doing so results in a melted head, which might be appealing but I was going for something else. After giving the surface a good priming, I covered the surface with three coats of red acrylic paint diluted with acrylic glazing medium. When you’ve been an artist a while, the supplies mount up. It’s common for a piece to be determined pretty much solely by what’s on hand and I had an overabundance of both.

Styrofoam Head With Acrylic Paint

It soon became clear that the project was influenced by ancient art.

Clay Goddesses From the Pottery Workshops of Kumartuli, India

India is one of the few places where contemporary pieces have changed little from those of thousands of years ago and I often go to that tradition for inspiration. My head clearly owes a lot to the clay goddess statues still being made today by the potters of Kumartuli, India.

Red Styrofoam Head

As I painted my own version, it was interesting to see how differently the face would appear after the tiniest adjustments of a line. We are so attuned to the human face that changing the shape of an eye or a lip by even a millimeter can entirely change the way we interpret an expression. In art, as in life, it’s reassuring to know that small steps can lead to such big things.

I could have stopped at this stage but the project seemed a little too close to this-is-just-a-fancy-wig-holder. I needed something more to turn it into art, or at least a bolder and stranger wig holder. Here is the result.

“Red Styrofoam Head With Beads” by Lynda McClanahan

Some fake hair, buttons, a quantity of floral corsage pins and many beads later, I’m left with this vaguely Hindu goddess. Object of devotion or over-sized knick knack, this is one of the few recent projects which I would put in the category of sheer, unadulterated, joyful play. I feel refreshed, re-invigorated and ready for whatever comes next.


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