Making faces in clay is as old as figurative sculpture itself. From the ancient Egyptians to Picasso, clay formed faces have captivated our imaginations. The earliest clay face forms were rudimentary and representative. New movements in the world of arts and craft have transformed the representation of the face in clay into a wide variety of styles, differing in technique and purpose.
There are two main types of face clay art: art/craft representation and scientific representation. In art, the face is replicated or artistically rendered in clay for religious, cultural, artistic and theatrical reasons. In science, the face is reconstructed in clay for forensic scientists.
Clay was one of the first materials the human race manipulated into representational forms and fetishes. The Egyptians used raised clay faces in hieroglyphics and clay sculptures to tell stories and pay homage to the gods. Similarly, the Sumerian's cuneiform tablets told stories of men and gods in clay. As art progressed, cultures such as the Greeks and Romans used clay to form the first mould for bronze casting. The face was classically represented and abstraction was never reproduced. Recently, the face in clay has been a central focus in movements such as face jug folk art, abstract sculpture and facial reconstruction in forensic science.
Face clay art represents the face in different shapes, styles and colours. Relief sculpting is produced when an artist adds a clay face onto a flat slab of clay. Theatrical masks are made by either laying a thin slab of clay over the subject's face or building it over a mould and then detailing features when the clay is semi-dry. The sculpted face is created by using a thick ball of clay around a dowel and then adding and subtracting clay with tools until a like representation forms. Folk art face jugs are made in the southeastern United States. A jug is thrown on the potter's wheel or coil built and then a relief face is added to the surface to produce a comic or scary expression. Forensic artists make facial representations over the found skulls of victims to profile criminals or missing persons.
The representation of the face in clay has given humanity a mirror to see itself through the ages. Artists use clay to give objectivity to the subjective views and feelings they have about the person they're modelling. Abstract clay face art has freed the artist's conception of what a face contains. In the world of folk art, face jugs have played an important role. They are said to inform the living when the dead is battling with the devil as well as scaring children away from their parent's liquor containers. The developments in forensic clay face reconstruction have proved beneficial in the identification of numerous unknown victims.
Face clay art is heading in two main directions. Some artists are using computer programs and robotic cutting techniques to accurately portray their subjects. Others are continuing the legacy of Picasso with total deformation and subjective abstraction of the face.
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