International Women’s Day: Honoring The Less Famous

Behind The Mask We Are Much The Same

Mar 8, 2011 by

In honor of International Women’s Day, I was tempted to write about famous women who have inspired me, like Oprah or SARK. Or perhaps I’d share moments from my own achievements as a professional visual artist.

But there’s a woman whom I hadn’t thought about in years who suddenly kept coming to mind as I was deciding what to write. Her name was Rita* and I met her over a decade ago at a women’s shelter in Montreal, Canada. She wasn’t one of the volunteers, she was one of the women who came to the shelter from time to time for a hot meal and a place to rest.

In the beginning of my career as an artist, I had created a project where I would take plaster casts of people’s faces and hands with the intention of combining them into an international “Totem for Humanity” sculpture. I would travel around the country, arranging “casting sessions” where I would cast people from all walks of life – college students and businessmen, artists and circus performers, children, as well as, grandmothers. But the most powerful session I ever held was at Chez Doris, a day shelter for women in need.

My casting session at Chez Doris had been announced over the previous days to the women who frequented the shelter and my posters explaining the project were posted throughout the building. “Don’t get discouraged, they may not come,” said the director as I was setting up my casting materials in one of the rooms. “They may have difficulty trusting someone they don’t know, especially for something as intimate as having their face or hands cast.”

“I’m not worried,” I replied. “I’ll be here all day, and if all we do is sit around and talk, that’s OK too. There’s no pressure.”

At first, I’d see them peek in from the doorway, but eventually one of them became curious enough to come in. We sat and talked for a bit and soon, one by one, others trickled in and joined the circle of chairs. The women were of all ages and nationalities and within a short time I had a fairly large group, chatting as though we were at a high tea social. Some I recognized from the metro stations where they would gather to escape the heat of summer or the brutal Montreal winters. Most, however, had their own places and came to Chez Doris for a good meal and professional help to find their way out of crushing poverty or abusive relationships.

Finally, one of the younger women volunteered to be the first to get cast. She was around my age, and although her face was starting to show signs of the hard life she had up to this point, she was still attractive. “I’d love to be a model some day.” she said as she settled into the chair next to my art supplies. “But I’m not sure I’m pretty enough.” I thought she would have preferred I cast her hands but to my surprise, she insisted I do a facecast.

I poured a little baby oil into my palm and warmed it with my hands. “Can I put some of this baby oil on your face now? It will make it easier to remove the mask at the end of the session.” She nodded in agreement. I was conscious of letting them know all the steps in the process so they would feel as comfortable as possible. “OK, now I’m going to dip these plaster bandages in warm water and place them on your face. So if you choose a particular facial expression, you’ll have to make sure you don’t move for at least 30 minutes, until I’ve finished and the plaster dries enough to remove the mask.” She closed her eyes and her lips curled into a subtle smile of contentment as I began my work.

She was clearly enjoying this, as if she were in a fancy spa getting an expensive facial. The other women oohed and aahed as I explained the process, then began volunteering to have their faces cast as well.

When the mask was done and I removed it, we all admired the power and the serenity of this very special facecast. More women lined up and I spent the day recording the most beautiful, smiling faces in white plaster masks. And all the while I worked, the rest of the women would sit in a circle and share stories. But these weren’t stories of horror and abuse. They were life stories – stories you or I might tell – and as I listened to them talk throughout day, I would never have guessed their living conditions. They didn’t dwell on the bad stuff. Caught up in the creative inspiration of my project, they talked of their hopes and dreams, their children and grandchildren, their lives before things had gone all wrong.

Towards the end of the day, I was exhausted but happy, and with just enough time to do one more facecast, in walked Rita. She was middle-aged and rather short with dark skin and jet black hair that curled softly around her face. She had a delightful accent when she spoke English and her smile lit up the entire room. She had come especially to participate in the project.

Rita told me a bit of her life story as I prepared the materials for her facecast. She was originally from India and had taught English in Nigeria before moving to Montreal. She never divulged what circumstances led her to become a regular at Chez Doris, and I didn’t ask. She seemed to be one of those people who always smiled in the face of adversity and who preferred not to dwell on such things.

When I was ready to apply the plaster bandages and asked her what facial expression she’d like to hold for the session, she broke into the biggest smile. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to keep that smile for the next 30 minutes?” I asked. “Yes, I’m sure!” she heartily replied, so I set out to work as quickly as I could.

When I had finished and removed the mask, Rita was clearly pleased. “You know, I will never become famous or do anything extraordinary in this life, but you have just allowed me to be part of a work of art that perhaps my grandchildren will be able to appreciate after I’m gone. It’s the only legacy I can leave behind. Make sure you tell everyone I’m from India.”

So, Rita, this International Women’s Day is dedicated to you. And it is my hope that your beautiful smile and simple wish will travel far and wide and inspire others. In my heart, you are already famous.

*Rita is a fictitious name to preserve her identity.

For more information on the Chez Doris women’s shelter, or to give a donation, please visit Chez Doris

About the Author

Serena Kovalosky Has Written 10 Articles For Us!

Serena Kovalosky left an 18-year corporate career in the travel industry in search of a more creative lifestyle. Establishing herself as a successful professional sculptor, Serena now travels with the eye of an artist, exploring artists' studios, eclectic restaurants and cultural gems off the beaten path, chronicling her discoveries and sharing stories of the creative people she meets along the way.
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  1. @atsGf GF Serena honors the overlooked on International Women’s Day: Honoring The Less Famous

  2. Serena – what a lovely thought and great idea for a project. Ever finish it? BTW – happy belated b’day…xoxo, debra

    • Thanks, Debra! The Totems for Humanity project was partially finished and presented at the International Festival for Humanity at McGill University in 2003. I still have all the original casts……waiting for their next reincarnation! – SerenaK

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