“Over time, you become a family”: the intimacy of lifecasting

In 1979, sculptor John Ahearn began making lifecasts in the window display of Fashion Moda, a famous interdisciplinary art space in the Bronx that operated from 1978 to 1993. Lifecasting is a strange and fascinating artistic process that generates sculptures by putting molds on living subjects, and Ahearn’s public displays about it quickly caused a stir. “It was a wonderful experience that I had with people who came forward and were interested in the process,” Ahearn recalls.

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One of the people who was intrigued by Ahearn’s rescue was a taxi driver named Wally, who returned home and told his family what he had seen. Eventually, word got through to Wally’s cousin, Rigoberto, who was then 17 and working in his uncle’s religious statuary factory. When Ahearn met Rigoberto that day, it was the start of an extraordinarily fruitful lifelong artistic collaboration.

“I had a very strong feeling when I met Rigoberto that he was unlike anyone else I had met in the Bronx so far,” Ahearn said. “I knew him and trusted him. I felt like that moments after getting to know each other. Rigoberto understood lifecasting and shared it with others. He brought materials back to his neighborhood and started doing lifecasting like we did at Fashion Moda.

This young man, whose full name is Rigoberto Torres, became a canonized creator of sculptures that reflected and celebrated life in his Bronx neighborhood, working alongside Ahearn for decades. Torres explained that at the time, he had no idea he was embarking on a permanent artistic path. “I was just looking for something I could do instead of working in a factory, which wasn’t satisfying,” he said. “I liked meeting the people I filmed – it’s complicated at first, but over time you become a family.”

In Swagger and Tenderness: The South Bronx Portraits by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, the Bronx Museum of the Arts celebrates 40 years of collaboration between Ahearn and Torres with a major study of their work together, exhibiting some 65 pieces in the community including various personalities, professions and cultures are the very basis of these sculptures. The exhibition, which runs from October 26 to April 2023, and includes archival images and ephemera, is the first major retrospective of the duo’s artistic collaboration since 1991.

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Lifecasting is a very personal and involved way of creating highly realistic sculptures that involve applying casting material to the body of an artist’s living, breathing subject. Once the mold solidifies and establishes its shape, it is carefully removed, leaving behind an incredibly realistic copy of its subject. Lifecasting requires subjects to remain very still throughout the process, and this involves a great deal of confidence – for example, when lifecasting faces, it is essential to use straws so subjects can continue to breathe. Because it is such an intimate method, it allows for a unique relationship between an artist and their sitter, which is reflected in the character of the resulting work. “It takes time to explain it to people and make them understand what it is,” Torres said. “It’s a challenge to make sure our subjects don’t feel jittery or shaky.”

Because of the immediacy that lifeasting can offer, Ahearn likened it to street photography on location. “When I started doing lifecasting,” Ahearn explained, “I thought of it like a Polaroid. It was very present, very direct and fast. You put the material down and take it down, and the sculpture is there, and it’s pretty much already done. It seemed more popular and straightforward as a way to do something.

Befitting a folk art form closer to Polaroid photography than statuary, the works on display in Swagger and Tenderness are friendly, easy to connect and highly representative of the stories of the Bronx community as a whole, showcasing the daily presence that shapes the texture of life in the Bronx. Swagger and Tenderness pieces include Ahearn and Torres’ life of a man towering over his 80s-style boom box, a graffiti artist in a black hoodie and gas mask, arms wrapped around dozens of canisters of spray paint, two women embracing in a warm hug, and a man crouching behind his proud pet dog.

Because these sculptures are by and for the Bronx community, curators Amy Rosenblum-Martín and Ron Kavanaugh took care to create an experience that truly invites the community and provides a space where they can linger and call home. Intended to embody the feeling of the neighborhood that surrounds it, the exhibit even has dedicated tables where museum visitors can play a game of skelzies or dominoes while taking a break from exploring the artwork. “The exhibit aims to amplify John and Rigoberto’s radical love for all Bronxites,” Rosenblum-Martín said. “It definitely goes against a white box aesthetic and goes for the type of architectural aesthetic that you see in the community buildings around the museum. We design seats where people feel encouraged to bring all their extended family and friends and sit down and play for a while.

Kavanaugh oversaw the creation of the exhibit’s catalog, which strives to represent many Bronx voices in a variety of ways. Among these is the inclusion of a graphic novel written by Kavanaugh and illustrated by Bronx artist Sole Rebel, which features a young Bronx heroine and in which Ahearn and Torres play a crucial role.

Remarking on the inspiration behind his graphic novel and the exhibit as a whole, Kavanaugh said, “It’s important now to have heroes. I looked at John and Rigo like that. They both went out into the community to engage people – it takes courage to set up shop outside and invite your neighbors to be part of your art project. I couldn’t imagine participating in something like [lifecasting] voluntarily. For John and Rigo, getting people out of their homes, covering their faces in plastic and participating is heroic in a different way.

Reflecting the many warm relationships Ahearn and Torres have built throughout their decades of creation, Swagger and Tenderness delivers a sense of exuberance and positive energy that reflects what community is all about. “It’s a joy to make people happy and to see the expression on their face when I do that,” Torres said. This sense of happiness and social cohesion is precisely what makes this a fascinating exhibit that should be experienced.

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