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Life Masks

Othniel Charles Marsh Artist expression takes on a myriad of different forms. From classic oil or watercolor paintings, to impressive sculptures or statuary, there seems to be no limit to how the mindís eye can be used to imitate reality. As Niagara prepares to celebrate its bicentennial, it is fitting to reflect upon the talented artists that have produced prodigious works of artistry over the last two hundred years.

One rather unique art form that is not well known surfaced in Niagara during the early 1900s. Lockportís favorite artist in residence, Raphael Beck, was a student himself in a new form of artist expression with which he was experimenting, namely creating facial masks. Raphael Beck came by his fascination with face masks quite honestly, his father, Augustus Beck, an artist himself, had been commissioned by the federal government to duplicate the famous life mask of George Washington cast by Jean Antoine Houdon in 1795. Augustus was given permission to keep a duplicate cast in appreciation for his efforts. Raphael Beck received the Washington facemask from his father and also acquired similar masks of Dante, Beethoven, Napoleon and Lincoln.

Facemasks are created by creating a casting of the face. The subjectís face is first covered with oil and then plaster is applied to form a mask. The mask is then removed and used as an exact mold of the face for making statues, or in this case, other masks. The resultant products are true-to-life replications of the subjects. Mr. Beck remarked that he often put as much time into perfecting a facemask as he did to do a formal portrait.

Raphael Beck dazzled a local audience in February 1923 when he unveiled his growing collection of facemasks to an unsuspecting public. With their usual flare for the artistic, Mr. and Mrs. Beck and their daughter Phyllis presented a dramatic program from their home on Willow Street to an audience of curious observers. Unsure of the substance of the performance to follow, the assembled guests took their place in a makeshift theater prepared in the artistís home. What followed was a living-history presentation of men and women from the past all fully costumed and wearing Mr. Beckís masks. These Thespians shared details from the lives of their assumed identities to an amazed crowd of onlookers and all remarked that the effect was so perfectly lifelike that they felt they had witnessed an actual reincarnation of people from the past.

Douglas Farley, Director
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094
716.439.0431
CanalDiscovery@aol.com
www.NiagaraHistory.org

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For More Information: www.NiagaraHistory.org


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