Baltimore artist attacks social issues with life casting
Published: August 8, 2012
Lania D’Agostino is in the people business but not in any traditional sense. It becomes obvious when you walk up the plaster- and dust-covered stairs leading to her second floor studio and emerge beneath a canopy of human torsos and limbs.
At the top of the stairs, a towering Muhammad Ali stands to the left of the stairwell. His face is filled with aggression as he glares across the room at a ballerina standing no more than five feet tall. The ballerina stares across the room at a shelf of human heads. “This is actually a casting of my daughter when she was much younger,” D’Agostino says. “She’s going off to college next week.”
D’Agostino is the owner and artistic director at D’Agostino Studios in Federal Hill and has been sculpting, life casting, and mold-making for almost 30 years, for clients that include Lucas Films, the Smithsonian, and the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, to name a few.
Recently, the Upper Canada Village, a heritage park in the province of Ontario, commissioned her to create figures for a new exhibit dedicated to the War of 1812, and currently there are 10 Civil War soldiers in her studio, waiting to be shipped to the South Mountain State Park welcome center in Boonsboro, Md.
An officer stands against the wall, greeting visitors. At his feet are two soldiers lying dead, covered with a shroud and painted white. “With the Civil War, you gotta have dead guys,” she says jokingly. Life castings of figures like soldiers or athletes pay D’Agostino’s bills and fund her personal projects.
D’Agostino moves past the carnage, into the back room of the studio, where the actual casting is done. Buckets, bags of plaster, and molds from other projects litter the floor and the two large worktables on the far side of the room. She takes out her phone and begins to scroll through photos of her latest project, entitled “#Home #Homeless,” created for the at-TENT-ion exhibit in Pearlstone Park during Artscape, where all of the artists created work in identical pup tents. “When I put the tent together, I just didn’t like it,” she says, “especially the fabric.” As a result, D’Agostino stripped the tent down to its frame.
For her deconstructed tent, she created four life-cast figures standing beneath the elevated frame. There’s a little girl who looks to be about three years old. Her face is painted cadmium blue, and in her hand, she holds a small stuffed jack rabbit.
Standing behind the little girl is a slightly older boy and a teenage girl. The boy looks off with the kind of stoicism normally reserved for someone who has lived a long and hard life. The teenage girl stands with her head held high, projecting a sense of pride. She holds two plastic tote bags—the kind often seen at the feet of homeless people while they sleep in bus shelters or ride public transportation.
Behind the youths, a man with a transparent head faces the opposite direction. “There are a lot of homeless youths in Baltimore City that people don’t even see, which is why I chose to do his head in this material,” D’Agostino says of the man’s clear head.
The entire piece is a dramatic divergence from her commissioned work. Instead of making the figures monochromatic or as lifelike as possible, “#Home #Homeless” employs a bright neon color scheme, and the paint has been applied with a loose hand, different colored crosses marking each figure.
After Artscape “#Home #Homeless” was moved to the main lobby of Healthcare for the Homeless, where it is on display.
This is not the first time D’Agostino has addressed social issues in her work. A dozen headless castings occupy the back corner of the studio like a decapitated terra cotta army covered in clear plastic. D’Agostino pulls back the plastic, showing that each of the casts depicts a person in the process of gender transformation.
“I have a friend of mine that went through gender transition. Female to male,” she says. She points to a pair of castings toward the front of the column. “This is her before she had her top surgery. This is her after.” The first casting shows a woman with her arms covering her breasts, but in the second, the breasts have been removed and the arms are hanging down.
As she continues to explain the stories behind each casting, her pronouns begin switching back and forth between masculine and feminine, and even she is not sure at which point she should begin referring to the figure as “he.”
When D’Agostino began the project, she was surprised by how many people volunteered to model and even had to turn people away. She says that for the models, it is similar to coming out; it symbolizes a transition from their embarrassment of their bodies to pride in them. “These people are exposing themselves to a group of people for the first time, and some of them have never even been completely naked standing in front of their lover before,” she says. “Here they are, having their bodies encapsulated, touched, and goop smeared all over them. Then, when it’s done, they finally get to see an image of their body in a way they hadn’t been able to before.”
So far, all of the castings in the gender project are of women in the process of becoming men. She is preparing to begin casting male-to-female transgender subjects, but she knows she’ll need more paying work before she can really get started and expects it will be another year before she is finished.
D’Agostino claims she has been told by multiple curators that this work is too controversial. She admits that the issue is complicated, but the complexity is precisely the reason the project is more interesting than the paid projects, like the Civil War figures. “For years, I built and repaired mannequins and it was just awful,” she says. “Even for the museum industry we don’t get to use different body types, usually because of the historical periods. But for my own projects I can do all the different body parts, body sizes, and shapes. And they’re wonderful.”
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