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Getting Plastered with the UCL Institute of Making

By George Wigmore, on 1 February 2013

Plaster is a wonderful material. It can be cast, carved and moulded, and this flexibility has resulted in it being used for thousands of years, from the ancient Egyptians to the archetypal sculptures that we associate with the Renaissance.

But plaster also has a fair bit of history at UCL. The university’s Museums & Collections contain countless extraordinary examples including early studies of children’s limbs from the Great Ormond Street Hospital collection and items from Galton’s experiments into eugenics.

To celebrate this wonderful material, a new exhibition about plaster and the casting process, highlighting the sculpture models of the neoclassical artist John Flaxman, started this month at the UCL Art Museum.

The exhibition is accompanied by a pop-up display in the South Cloisters, so I headed down to have a go at casting, mixing, carving and moulding plaster with artist and Curator of Materials, Zoe Laughlin from the UCL Institute of Making.

With countless people wandering through the Cloisters on their lunch break, the pop-up was perfectly placed to exploit passing interest and, as time went on, more and more people stopped to either stare, ask questions about the UCL Institute of Making, or get involved.

With large buckets of water and significant quantities of plaster, we were primed to take advantage of the variety of moulds, vessels and tools that were laid out on the carefully plastic-wrapped table.

Many of the utensils were scarily reminiscent of their dental counterparts – especially with a dental impression mould among them – and conjured up an archaic, and more painful, period of dentistry.

Commonly known as ‘plaster of Paris’ – due to the presence of a large gypsum deposit at Montmartre in Paris – plaster is produced by heating gypsum to well beyond boiling point, then driving off any water that has chemically bonded with the material. This leaves a dry, off-white powder.

By adding water again, we made the powder reform into the gypsum, giving off heat in the process, and giving us the flexibility to sculpt the slowly-hardening material into any form we chose.

Having cast a shell and a few teeth, I wandered off to get some lunch – all the while, quietly content that I’d had a chance to have a go at something that I hadn’t tried since those chaotic art classes at school.

The pop-up was a great experience for me not only because it allowed me to make a mess and mould some plaster in my lunch break, but also because it reminded me of the incredible skill and artistry needed to make the wonderful sculptures and friezes that cover the walls of the Octagon gallery and the UCL Art Museum just a few short paces away.

Plastered runs until the 19 April 2013 at the UCL Art Museum. Entrance is free, and you can visit between 1-5pm Monday to Friday.

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