When Willa Shalit plasters people, they invariably react with surprise. Farrah Fawcett was so excited she called up her mother to come right over. Sophia Loren said she’d never seen her soul before. Vanessa Williams didn’t recognize herself.
Shalit, the 30-year-old daughter of NBC’s Today commentator Gene Shalit, makes masks of people’s faces. Cast from plaster molds, the finished result is often so revealing that many people feel they’ve encountered their true selves for the first time. Retail scion Richard Marcus was so impressed with his mask that Shalit and her services were featured in last year’s Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog. “I find the human face beautiful,” says Shalit. “And the fact that people can see the beauty of themselves in these masks has helped me go forward.”
Most of Shalit’s masks are created in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. Her workroom overflows with recognizable plaster facades: There’s an impish Helen Hayes, an unsmiling Marcel Marceau and a forceful President Reagan (done at the White House). Other parts of the body have also been the object of her artistic attentions. A leg en pointe on the table turns out to be that of prima ballerina Natalia Makarova. The powerful fist hanging on the wall is that of Muhammad Ali.
Shalit’s molding process is surprisingly swift and pleasant. After applying light oil to her subject’s face, she lays on moistened strips of surgical plaster bandages, working around the nose so as not to obstruct breathing. After the mold dries, usually in one minute, it is cast with polymerand high calcium gypsum to produce a finished mask, which is coated with casing paint. The masks range in price from $200 to $1,800 for a gold veneer coating.
Even as a young girl growing up in Leonia, N.J., Willa was fascinated with faces. “She analyzed people and was interested in how they looked and what they wore,” says her father. The second of Shalit’s six children (his wife died seven years ago), Willa and her siblings were shielded from publicity. “When we were growing up, no one knew we existed,” she says thankfully. “My father kept us very private. At home there was a lot of reading, education and art, and a lot of ‘you can do anything you want.’ The concept of impossible was not in our vocabulary.”
As a classics major at Ohio’s Oberlin College, Willa learned to make masks while working in the drama department. After graduating in 1978 she moved to Martha’s Vineyard for a year and developed her talent making free masks for the islanders. “There’s an incredible bond when making these masks,” she says. “It’s a thing we always want with other people—not to be nervous and not to be separate. The interaction is very intimate.”
Since moving to New York in 1979 Shalit has continued to make life casts professionally along with wearable masks for theater and video projects. She long ago, of course, cast the faces of her entire family, which were recently on display at an East Village gallery. Gene Shalit could not be more proud of his daughter’s success. “When she did the first mask of me and it didn’t stick to my mustache,” he declares, “I knew she was on the right track.”