Wellcome Images recently acquired a photographic series depicting the gradual creation of a human head in clay. They form part of an art project called Stranger than a Wolf by artist Heather Spears. For the project sculptor Ellie Scheepens was asked to reproduce a human skull with attention to comparison and touch, rather than sight. This unique method of forensic modelling was directed throughout the process by Heather Spears. We asked Heather to tell us more about the process.
I’ve taught drawing for many years, and also teach art students to construct clay heads, a wonderful way for anyone to learn about the human head, including those who draw and paint it. I live in Denmark and borrow skulls to teach from at the Panum Institute in Copenhagen.
Students start with the skull. I want them to approach the head, not as what they think they know, but as an unknown object – Giacometti said, “The human head is stranger, and a thousand times more mysterious, than the head of a wolf.”
Students work from the back, sides and top, using touch (always trustworthy, whereas the eye is not) to compare their clay heads with the skull they have chosen, moving by feel towards the face, not even looking at it till the rest is accurate.
Not even using the term “face.” Because the face is too familiar, too loaded, too recognized. And in this way, the facial bones (orbits, jaw etc) appear as if by magic – no need to teach proportion or correct mistakes.
When the skull is completed we use red clay for the muscles of expression, and talk about them, about how they contract to express a complex range of feelings that can be read and communicated, universally.
Students learn that the mouth muscle is a pancake and takes its form from the bone underneath, and how ‘lips’ are another loaded concept to be avoided.
There is a point when there are suddenly twice as many people in the class, when the clay heads become uncannily human. After the muscles, the skin is applied, using white clay again.
And when the course is over, I am left with the skulls I borrowed, readying them to be returned.
Cleaning cranium after class
Holding them as I held
the heads of my sons before they could
hold their own, to wash their hair,
tap water running down
again in a new kitchen, a new morning,
now over yellow brittle difficult bone,
but still in strands, and my fingers’ know-it-all
Dark smear of clay
clings where my students propped
or touched them, to learn
their muscular, lost faces; this I must clean,
as a midwife, or the one
who firmly does the laying out, go on
thinking of the ways a human hand
handles a human head:
Coaxes out or ladles in
scolds, holds it by the stubborn chin,
wears and works its surface as a cat’s paw
life long, graceful and habitual,
grooms us or others – the stroke, the slap
of rage, pokes, punches, unintended black and blue
bruises, braces the temples between two hands
in comfort or in wonder – maybe some woman lay
athwart this sullen bowl
in trembly benison – they all received
in life such insults and such services –
Seven jawbones in a scoured row
smile on the sill,
waiting their own,
seven boxes gape with Panum on the lid
to take back and be cupboarded –
lanterned male with the skewed pate
ball-headed female whose fused skull
meant twilight deep and irrevocable,
an 8 year’s eager child,
and last the white
bird-headed lizard-headed foetal cranium
weightless and extinct –
the water runs, I smooth off clay as if I were
their angel, and this the last day.
Copyright Heather Spears, from The Panum Poems by Heather Spears, Ekstasis, Canada, ISBN 0-921215-93-2
Film and exhibition: Stranger Than a Wolf: