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Casting Call: Art Transforms Body and Soul  by Carole TenBrink
Casting Call: Art Transforms Body and Soul

(KINGSTON) When Cheryl-Ann Webster’s 13-year-old daughter told her that a friend was saving her allowance for breast implants, she knew she had to do something.

 “I wanted to show young girls that we come in all shapes and sizes, and we have tummies, too,” explains Webster.

Then, at a drum camp where she registered as a participant, Webster invited participants to volunteer to have their torsos cast in plaster and was stunned by the response. She ended up casting a total of 48 in two-and-a-half days, and the Beautiful Women Project was born.

Soon, her studio rafters were jammed with 125 casts of women aged 19 to 91.When she began to create clay sculptures from the plaster casts, Webster had to buy a 45-foot trailer to house them. Today, over 200 volunteers have contributed to the project. Webster chose clay as her medium, in part because clay is primal, of the earth.

Clay contains water, as do our bodies. Clay requires the heat of firing to make it permanent, as we require the sun’s heat to survive. After consulting the women who were cast, Webster adorned each sculpture based on her interpretations of the woman’s life experiences. While she was applying plaster strips to women’s torsos, the women often shared their life stories with Webster.

Then, something changed. “I realized that it’s not just the 13-yearold girls who need to see this exhibition. It’s all of us. We all prod and poke, wish for something different, go on yo-yo diets. It seems no matter what build we have, we’re not happy with it,” she recounts. When she started the project, Webster hoped the exhibition would have an impact. She was delighted when even the casting stage proved transformative.

One participant, an abuse survivor, told Webster that allowing her sculpture to be displayed in public was the biggest step of her life. Another woman had a double mastectomy the week following her initial casting. Nine weeks later, Webster cast her torso again. “We’ve cried together, laughed together. I get e-mail every week from women [telling me] how the project has changed their lives. I mean, it has undoubtedly changed mine—it’s taken over mine. But it’s changed it in a good way, too. And I even see myself in a better light.”

Webster now believes that “the only way we’re going to get the message across to young girls is to start believing it ourselves. Every single woman walked in and said something negative about herself.” If the casting stirred such in-depth awareness, think how much more the exhibition can do. The Beautiful Women Project will open in January at the Studio Gallery at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Along with the exhibition, there will be discussion groups on body image as well as curriculum materials for school groups.