Plaster people … a la George Segal

Plaster people … a la George Segal – art project

Michele Boulay

Those of us who are art educators know that it is often a challenging task, inventing new ideas that will both inspire and challenge our students and lead them toward new heights of creativity each year.

As an art educator, I believe it is vital to teaching to remain a working artist, someone who inspires her students by being a role model for them to emulate. Often, however, teaching consumes most of our time and energy during the school year. Summer is usually the only opportunity to truly create, without the responsibilities of teaching. It is also the best time, through my own experimentation with different sculptural mediums, that I am able to “invent” new assignments for the coming school year.

Last summer, I created a life-sized, plaster-cast self-portrait. My intent was to reflect my intense feelings and emotional ties to the ocean, and allow the piece to exude a feminine, yet powerful sense of strength. The sculpture would also evoke a sense of movement of tidal ebb and flow. I “solved the problem” (as I refer to projects with my sculpture students) by casting half my body with intentions of installing the piece on a wall as a relief sculpture. I learned about myself, my feelings about the subjective issues, and about the medium of working in plaster and its endless possibilities.

In September, I told my students about my summer project, and tried to get a sense of how they would feel about undertaking this type of assignment. They couldn’t wait to get started! I had to quell their enthusiasm for the moment in order to present the lesson in a more formal manner. I wanted to present the historical aspects of the idea, ensure proper preparation and planning, and still allow them to harness their enthusiastic impulses to get started, A.S.A.P.!

I presented the lesson to my students from the historical perspective. Slides were shown, images from the Internet were utilized, and lively class discussions ensued regarding the sculptor, George Segal, who worked in the medium of plaster installations in the 1960s. Most of his figures are cast in plaster and set in an actual environment, such as a lunch counter or street crossing (see Arts & Activities, June 2000, page 23). My students were then told to develop an idea for their three-dimensional self-portrait that would reflect an emotion or social comment on a contemporary issue.

The students were assigned a series of drawings and sketches in order to develop the design element of the project. One student decided to portray herself as a waitress, eventually titling her sculpture, At Your Service. This student cast half of her torso and, after further research and problem-solving discussions, attached that part of the sculpture to a stretched canvas frame.

She did on-site research for her project by visiting a local 1950s-style diner, taking photographs and doing sketches. She incorporated the images by relief sculpting the shapes onto the canvas, depicting booths, curtained windows, a snack bar, an opened door in the background, and black-and-white tile flooring. This student’s sculpture won a Gold Key Award in the Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards in 2001.

Another student’s sculpture, which also won a Gold Key in Boston in 2001, became a finalist at the Regional Competition in New York, and went on to win a Silver Award at the National Competition in Washington, D.C. This piece, entitled, Road Rage, was a portrait of the student driving her car while talking on her cell phone, and spilling a mug of coffee.

I had 12 students in my advanced 3-D class this year, and each one “solved the problem” in their own way. Each project was as unique as each sculptor’s personality. My students not only learned about using a new medium for creative expression, but also became more aware of serf-identity and ways in which the art world can contribute to, and make a statement about, modern life.

This project offers the student endless possibilities for problem-solving activities. All of the potential “problems” could not possibly be anticipated, prior to starting each self-portrait. That is what makes this assignment such a wonderful learning experience for the student sculptor. Not only will they learn about form and function, but they will also learn practical hands-on experience in problem solving. Through assembling their sculptures, they will learn about what makes things in our environment structurally sound. This project also offers students the opportunity to work cooperatively, and to share their ideas and learning experiences with each other.

Taunton High School is a large city school with a student body of over 2,000. I was fortunate, in that my class size was small. I had 12 students who were in grades 11 and 12. They were all girls, so when it was time to cast each other, we didn’t have problems with pairing our teams. There was quite a bit of giggling when we first started and the students had to plaster each other. They soon overcame their shyness, though, and became engrossed in the process.

Several resources were used in researching this project. “The Past Exhibitions of George Segal” ( was a good Web site, with historical information, and photos of his work. This site will also have other links that can be used for further research. We also referred to the book, The History of Modern Art, Fourth Edition, by H. Harvard Armason, et al (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), which has a segment on George Segal, and Pop artists of the 1960s.

My students were assessed on their research skills and preparation, by planning with photos and sketches. Their expressive skills were assessed initially by their original idea format. They were required to envision their ideal solution by writing their ideas on paper, and keeping them for final assessment at the end of the project. They were asked to refer to the “Ideal Solution” page after project completion, and compare their actual experiences with their anticipated experiences. Daily student/teacher critiques were ongoing. Students were required to learn to self-edit their projects and to question how improvements in aesthetic and structural quality might be implemented.

This project requires approximately a half-semester to reach completion. I felt that it justified that amount of time, because it addresses several of the National Standards for Visual Arts Education. It addressed the understanding of media, techniques and processes. My students increased their knowledge of structures and functions, throughout the construction of this assignment. They were required to choose and evaluate a range of subject matter, even though this was a self-portrait. They had to examine a range of symbols and ideas. The lesson presented the historical aspect of working in the plaster medium. During the assessment process, my students were able to reflect upon and determine the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.


* gain an understanding of media, techniques and processes.

* increase their knowledge of structures and functions throughout the construction of this assignment.

* choose and evaluate a range of subject matter and examine a range of symbols and ideas.

* research the historical aspect of working in the plaster medium.

* reflect upon and assess the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.


* Students should pre-cut strips of plaster craft to sizes ranging from 1″ x 2″ to 2″ x 3″. Larger pieces may be cut as needed or as determined by the student. Care must be taken to keep the pre-cut pieces perfectly dry until it is time to apply them.

* The student who will be “cast” should dress in “casting” clothes (leotards or tank tops). They will need to wrap their hair with plastic food wrap or a shower cap. All exposed skin needs to be covered with petroleum jelly, to prevent the plaster from adhering to the skin.

* The student should lie down in their chosen pose on a tabletop that has been covered with plastic sheeting. They will work with a partner during the casting procedure. The partner should cover the subject’s eyes with 2″ x 2″ pieces of plastic wrap. When the face casting actually begins, the student may want straws placed into their nostrils, but this step is optional.

* Larger sheets of plastic wrap should be placed over the student’s torso to prevent their clothing from becoming wet during the plastering process.


* Plaster Craft (one-half to one whole 25-lb. box per student)

* Masking tape (1-inch wide)

* Scissors

* Petroleum jelly

* Plastic food wrap

* Plastic sheeting

* Shower caps (optional)

* Cold water

* Plastic bowls

* Straws (optional)

* Students will need form-fitting clothing, leotards or tank tops


The following casting procedures each take approximately 30-45 minutes. At least two layers of plaster strips should be applied in all of the procedures. After all of the procedures are completed, the actual sculpture is then assembled using plaster strips during another class period. In the final step, after each sculpture is assembled, the finished details are applied and when they are completely dry, the sculptures are painted white with gesso.


1. Place the cut strips in a dry work space.

2. Put cold water in a bowl.

3. Rub petroleum jelly on exposed areas of skin where plaster will be making contact.

4. Wet one strip of plaster craft at a time and apply it to the face in alternating strips from horizontal, to vertical, to diagonal orientation. Smaller-sized strips are easier to work within the facial area.

5. Care should be taken to smooth rough edges while plaster is wet, if a smooth finish is desired.

6. Work the plaster craft approximately one inch past the hairline, which has been covered with plastic wrap.

7. Straws may be carefully placed in the subject’s nostrils if the student requests them. Otherwise be very careful and use the smallest pieces of plaster around the nostril area. This will ensure capturing more detail.

8. The neck area should also be cast to the upper-chest area during this casting session.

9. If the student wants his or her ears cast, they should be done separately, and attached to the face cast at a later time.


When casting arms, hands, front and back of torso, the casting procedure needs to be done in two stages.

1. Cast the top of the arm during one class period, and allow to dry.

2. The bottom half of the hand and arm should be cast during the next class period. (This procedure works more favorably, if the top part of the arm, which is now dry from the previous day, is placed back onto the student’s arm, and the other half is cast.)

3. A 1/4- to 1/2-inch separation should be left between the two cast halves. (There should be two halves of the arm after this class period.)

4. During the next class period, the two parts of the arm may be assembled and plastered together, using plaster strips.

5. This same procedure should be followed for the torso, using the larger strips of plaster.

Michele Boulay teaches art at Taunton (Massachusetts) High School.

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