I first eyed the massive white Victorian hotel that lay by the ocean front like a cold slab of mausoleum wall one sunny afternoon. I was on my way to make a trek up a great big hill known as the Bray Head in the small seaside town of Bray, roughly 20 miles outside of Dublin, Ireland. Though it was a beautiful crisp day, the sunshine did nothing to illuminate the hotel that borrows its name from the shadowing hill that looms above it. Its stillness gave no suggestion that it held in habitants inside so I naturally assumed that the hotel was no longer operational. An American at birth having been born in Los Angeles, the town best known for the unreal projected onto a large white screen, I have a predisposition at times to comparing life to the movies and the hotel reminded me of gothic cinema Americana at its very best, immediately bringing to mind The Shining and Barton Fink. The protagonists in both films are writers driven into a sort of madness, or merely sucked into it, enveloped within the walls of a hotel were they contend against naked bodies of decomposing malevolent corpses in the bath, or the John Goodmans of the world hoarding a severed head in the room next door.
A friend assured me some time later that the hotel was indeed functioning. Intrigued, my idle thoughts turned to pondering what kinds of people stayed at the Bray Head. Shortly before my departure from Ireland, where I had been living for the past two years, I was spending a Guinness-soaked evening with friends at a local pub when a man approached me. He told me he lived in the foreboding hotel by the sea. He also told me that he had severed heads, not cinematic victims’ but his own, and he did not keep them hidden in a box but hung them in alleyways and on the crumbling walls of buildings.
“You sound like you’re an American,” a bellowing Scottish accent caught my left ear. I looked up, taking a pause from talking with friends one November evening at Harbour Bar in Bray, a pub steeped in its own history having been in the O’Toole family since the mid-nineteenth century. There you’ll find photos of occult leader Alistair Crawly and a moose’s head given to them by actor Peter O’Toole (no relation) among other odd gems. But most importantly, you’re guaranteed a proper pint of Guinness and interesting towns folk to converse with.
Smiling back was a rather large, long haired and bearded Viking of a man, though later a friend would remark that he had more of the physique of a Pleistocene hunter who could take down a mammoth with his bare hands. I did not disagree.
“Why yes I am,” I responded and the man, who looked like he was plucked out of a more brutal era, introduced himself simply as Gibb. After pleasantries were exchanged, Gibb proudly declared that he was an artist given to putting up masks around Dublin and Bray. I had seen the masks many times while walking the streets of Dublin, death-like faces that seemed to pop-out of the alleyway and slink back into the darkness when I passed by. I asked Gibb who the face belonged to and he grinned and proclaimed they were his.
Later that evening, Gibb told me that he was interested in casting my face. Now, if I may digress, it’s not every day that a very large, very charming, boisterous Scotsman approaches me in a pub and makes such a proposition. To be accosted by an artist who lives in the old dark foreboding hotel by the sea would cause some to be slightly ill at ease; however, I have a penchant for all things macabre. To relax I would frequent Dublin’s many museums such as the “dead zoo,” also known as the Natural History Museum, and look at Britain’s colonial past in stuffed animal form, and to purge anxieties I would visit (not without a shudder) the sacrificial bog bodies at the Archeology Museum. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued and thus began a friendship with the mask-maker.
Four days after our first encounter, I found myself inside the walls of the elusive Bray Head Hotel with one of its very own inhabitants, Gibb the “mask-maker”. It was off season and there were no guests in the hotel, leaving the corridors very still and quiet. When I asked Gibb how long he had been living at the Bray Head, he paused and answered, “A year and a half, maybe more. I’ve actually forgotten. I’ve stopped recollecting time”. It turns out this is actually quite an appropriate response as time does stand still at the hotel, or at least the décor says as much. Each room looks as if trapped in a different genre and could act as a back drop to a movie set, anything from a Victorian period piece to an old western. Unfinished puzzles, non-ticking clocks, and fake fern trees adorn rooms and staircases. A chandelier hanging above a bar surrounded by crimson red walls and wooden floors looks like it could act in a scene from either John Ford westerns or Jane Eyre.
The most interesting room, however, proved to be Gibb’s. Upon entering the small uncarpeted room, a dead-eyed gaze caught my attention. Hanging from the wall was a framed collage of magazine cut-outs of women’s faces. I looked at this and said, "I think I’d be slightly more freaked out if those were actual photographs of women you had taken."
Born William Gibb Forsyth in 1966, Gibb’s origins start in Prestonpans, an industrial town outside of Edinburg, Scotland, though he has lived in Ireland for the last fifteen years. It is in Ireland that Gibb first began making the masks or as he corrected me “life casts” of his face just over three years ago. These casts are scattered around Dublin and neighboring Bray. Some are comical and painted in clown colors, some wear sun glasses, but most look like a death mask, all the indentations of the face, beard and wrinkles revealed in fine, still detail. The masks, Gibb elucidates, are “about connecting, making something different in everyday life.”
Gibb goes onto explain why it is only his face you see on public display. “It’s about accountability and responsibility. If you want to put your face on the wall, do it your fucking self”. When I posit the question that perhaps it’s a bit egoistical to have his face plastered around town, he shakes his head no. “I can’t run away from it. It was clear intent” adding that if a judge ever charges him with defacing property he has a solid defense, “‘I’d tell him, ‘I wasn’t de-facing, I was ad-facing,’” Gibb laughs.
In addition to casting his own face, Gibb has made face casts of other people, including a piece that was featured at a charity auction at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin where we rubbed elbows and made small talk with Bono’s wife and Ms. Ireland.You can also see his more feminine creations of casts of women’s breasts and bums at local pubs including the Harbour Bar.
Wanting to expand his portfolio, Gibb told me about his “Wall of hands” idea. We were seated at the bar in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin when Gibb began to explain to me that his project is exactly what it sounds like- a wall of hand casts of famous Irish people. I nodded my head following along until Gibb raised both hands. “Put your hands up to mine” he said. I obliged, my hands were dwarfed next to his. “Now imagine these are Bono’s hands” he said nodding at his own. Furrowing my brow and looking at his massive hands I had a hard time imaging Bono in his place, “I betcha he’s got small hands,” I said. “Ah,” Gibb wrinkled his nose “it doesn’t fucking matter”.
I soon got the chance to witness the artist at work. With a mix of curiosity and anticipation, I secured a front row seat to one of Gibb’s casting calls.
It was like a mad scientist conducting an experiment with thick toxic waste. Gibb stood before a man seated in a large black chair. We were surrounded by white tiled walls that would be at home in a hospital, but were actually located in a newly constructed room soon to be used for tattooing at the Gypsy Rose, a bar in Dublin. The toxic sludge was in fact alginate, a paste made of algae that goes on the skin to protect it before casting commences. Paddy Doran, a friend of Gibb’s, sat immobilized, not able to see or speak through the thick goo. Bandages were soon put over the alginate, imitating Boris Karloff’s mummy. The white cloth dried quickly and Gibb commenced his work taking off the solidified wrap from Doran’s face and filling the inside with plaster. When the plaster had dried Gibb took the mask out of the hard, cracked bandages and held up his creation. The mask imitated the model’s features as if he were in a deep slumber, prominent lines ran along the mouth and closed eyes, and his mustache and goatee were exposed in fine detail. I asked Doran how it felt to see the mask, “It’s surreal” he smiled. When Gibb put down the mask, I ran my fingers along the sides of the face. Surprisingly, it was warm to the touch, something to do with a chemical reaction Gibb explained, but it felt more like the mad scientist breathing life into his creation.
Gibb’s creations, whether his own or of another, enter the world in warmth, but they soon cool down to cold, hard masks once they’re separated from the mad scientist’s hands. At this stage, its likeness is an uncanny mold of the grotesque and life-like. It is at once familiar and strange.
Life casts are three-dimensional naturalistic representations, unlike one-dimensional photography or idealized chiseled marble sculptures. The features of the face are crudely visible and can be felt. Eyes closed, the expressions are fixed as in sleep or death. These “life” casts of the living in a way act as a mememto mori, a reminder of death as it captures a very precise moment in time, a face stripped down and bare with visible lines, wrinkles and no make-up, all the indicators of age and life magnified and unavoidable. Gibb had told me once that some people are frightened by the idea of having their face cast precisely because it looks like a death mask. But I also think that it’s a reminder that the mask may live on longer than we do, a thought that is both frightening and beautiful because it is leaving an indelible imprint of oneself, such as I had seen of Gibb’s face on public display on the streets of Dublin.
I never did get my face cast. It was fitting that I encountered Gibb shortly before I had to leave Ireland which had become my home. Though the prospect of leaving a memory of myself behind intrigued me, ultimately, I decided against it. Perhaps because it reminded me of a death mask, perhaps it was safer to observe this type of imprint, this physical, tangible memory done from a distance. However, I know when I visit Dublin once again and pass by the bog bodies and the still and silent animals that Gibb’s mask will greet me once more and sneak back into the folds of the peeling paint as I walk by.