"One of my collectors wakes up with my ass on his face on one side of his bed, and my feet propped in the opposite nightstand," fine art painter and sculptor Kelley Devine jokes about the nature of her work.
Devine didn't mean that literally, of course, but her quip is not so much removed from reality.
There may be some quirkiness and waggish qualities in Devine's body casting process. Such ribald remarks could give rise to opinions that her work is, on the surface, trivial with a dash of slapstick humor. Though Devine herself is a lively gal with a sparkle in her eye and a devilish wit, her output layers her personal story alongside commentary that hovers between issues of societal importance and the identity of the archetypal self.
Body casting belongs in that milieu.
Devine's obsession with her own human form began after years studying steelwork at Southeastern Louisiana University; she had access to raw materials from a family-owned industrial coatings business. While she was at first allured by the rigidity and the scale of metals, she became increasingly obsessed with the idiosyncrasies of the body.
"I wanted to figure out a way to bring some of that into the human form without sculpting it as a human form," Devine explains. "I wanted the human form. I finally figured out a way to do that with metal. That's using body casting, which is an actual cast of, generally, myself."
The three-dimensional objects offer a contrast between a human external physical appearance and internal nuances and undertones, both psychologically and aesthetically. They project the type of duality that lives in each person. For Devine to achieve such a polarity successfully, the inside has to legitimately fuse with the outside.
"I read somewhere that you can't write about something you don't know. Well I can't paint about something I don't know. I am woman, I know that. That's where I start."
"It's really personal; it can be very difficult, but it would be more difficult not to do it," she says. "I've had to come to grips with being honest with myself and with everyone else through body casting. I've had to deal with some truths that, as a society, we avoid. I have heart-to-heart talks with myself from time to time."
Devine makes art because it's how she lives, she continues, though it often feels she has to in order to live, in order to overcome obstacles and sail through life's challenges. She has considered what it would be like to apply body casting to other people, but she thinks the end piece wouldn't be honest; the purpose would be absent.
Over the years she has refined her technique. Her first casts were thin, flimsy, albeit beautiful. Today she produces sculptures that defy gravity. She has cast her torso, arms, legs, neck, back and buttocks, and has added sharp nails, broken glass, fabric, flowers, lights, pillows and found objects. It's her way of bringing something banal to a higher plane, elevating them to represent the possibility of appearing inside her body.
When meandering about Devine's atelier at Winter Street Studios, there's a clear back story that concerns her paintings and sculptures.
"I read somewhere that you can't write about something you don't know," she explains. "Well I can't paint about something I don't know.
"I am woman, I know that. That's where I start."
The process of body casting
Devine applies jelly to her exposed body parts she's poised to cast. One of her biggest mistakes — and most painful — is forgetting to shave before making art.
"You learn quickly from those types of faux pas," she laughs.
Whether she needs help from a colleague or she's on her own depends on what part of her body she's casting. Sometimes casting requires her to pose for long periods of time in very compromising positions. And when she's casting some of her, shall we say, more sensitive areas, she asks a trusted friend to make sure her posture is flattering.
"Wouldn't you?" she asked me. I had to agree.
"As the plaster hardens and sets, it releases heat, sometimes reaching upwards of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the muddy mixture reaches its peak temperature and starts cooling off, Devine knows the end is near."
More often than not she has someone nearby as the finished mold can weight up to 90 pounds. On this day we were there to observe Devine cast her legs.
After lining the workspace with plastic covering, she proceeds to dissolve regular industrial grade plaster in a 50-gallon bucket filled with water. She sits on the floor with her legs straight and the souls of her feet resting against the wall; she continues to mix the plaster until it's a milky consistency.
Then the fun begins.
As if she were enjoying a child-like playful tantrum, Devine chucks and flings wet plaster across her legs and feet. Some trickles down her skin, some stays put. And as she layers more plaster, her limbs begin to recede from view. Devine takes short breaks to survey her progress and continues when she determines how to press on. Moments of intense concentration intermingle with racy jokes complemented by her signature laugh.
About 30 minutes into her craft, Devine is pleased with the shape, depth and width.
As the plaster hardens and sets, it releases heat, sometimes reaching upwards of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the muddy mixture reaches its peak temperature and starts cooling off, Devine knows the end is near — another 15 minutes. The crust turns rugged, jagged, rough.
Devine uses a rubber mallet to pound at the wall; the vibrations separate the cast from the sheetrock; she wiggles gently to retreat back and pushes upwards against the dried plaster. It takes more than a few thrusts for the mold to detach from her skin. She examines her work, the contour of the inside of the mold, the fingers. Though it cracks a few inches, Devine isn't concerned. It's part of the process.
"I love that part," she comments. "I take it apart to put it back together, like a puzzle."
She's ready for a shower. Her hair, skin and clothes are covered in whitish goo. Her next steps are to cold-bend steel to form a solid armature, cast the mold with a slow-kick epoxy, add whatever materials the piece calls for on the inside — like glass, nails, fabric — and allow it to dry for three days. When it's firm she can remove the plaster by hammering and chipping away at it.
"We are talking about a process that involves a lot of sweat, a lot of dirt, sometimes some blood as well," she says. "You have plaster everywhere. You have to wash it, scrub it, shape it. And you have to remember about the material on the inside; you can't get it dirty because if you are working with glass, nails or fabric, they need to stay free of debris."
Devine could just build a steel plate and weld it into place to stand it up. But she prefers to use something she has made. Like a pillow to represent the sort part of a hard body. Or a book, perhaps one of the many her father left after he passed.
It's another part of the story of the sculpture.