Small's feat

Rachael Elaine Small casts women -- literally -- as works

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Rachael Elaine Small's apartment is a tiny one-room studio overlooking Old Town. She filled the space with wooden tables laden with art supplies and ceramic casts of the torsos of 40 women.

On Tuesday, the white clay of several newly fired casts sat on a metal shelf. The swelling belly of one cast was freshly painted the color of wood -- a frozen clay record of one woman's journey into motherhood.

Small has been making body casts of herself and her friends since her years as a sculpture major at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Her final project for graduation involved casting the torsos of all her friends.

"I knew I was going to be leaving and saying goodbye to all those people," Small said. "I wanted to capture the moment."

Until that final year of college, Small's sculptural work had always been abstract figuratives that she carved into stone. It wasn't until she spent a year in Italy, studying art in Tuscany, that she found the inspiration for the work for which she is now known.

"I was inspired by how open they are in Europe," Small said. "You go to the beach and no matter what body type you have, most women are topless at the beach.

"I enjoyed that ability to be free."

Small, now 24, moved to Steamboat Springs a year and a half ago. At first, she had a hard time feeling connected to the place, she said. She decided to use her art to draw a line from herself to the outside world.

"I decided to document the incredible women I was meeting in this town," Small said. "I was inspired by their lives and the struggle it takes to be here, unless you move to town with money."

The women she met in Steamboat were active, happy people, she said, who were happy to be here despite the struggle.

Small proposed her show concept, "Women of Steamboat: A Sculptural Documentary," to Sydney Craig, owner of Comb Goddess Salon and Gallery, six months ago, and Craig accepted immediately.

"It wasn't hard to get women to participate," she said. "I have a lot of good girlfriends who all respected what I was doing."

For the show, Small cast women age 18 to 50, including herself.

The process begins in Small's studio. The cast is made with a large sheet of plaster pressed against the body from the neck to the waist.

"It was very comfortable," said Craig, who is having her body cast at various stages of her pregnancy. "I was nervous at first, but that feeling went away.

"For me, this was definitely about the pregnancy. My body will only be like this for nine months, and then it will be over."

The plaster takes about 20 minutes to set.

"It's kind of a social activity," Small said. "It's a bonding time."

Often, she would invite many women over for a night of casting, wine and sushi.

"The main purpose was to make each woman feel like she was a work of art," Small said. "Women are so mean to themselves."

After the casting, Small makes a mold from the plaster. When the mold is complete, she presses clay into it, making the final form. Once the form is made, Small fires it in a kiln.

The final piece is a ceramic reproduction of the woman's body, stained, painted or collaged by Small.

She ended the series by casting herself, something she has done a number of times over the past three and a half years.

"Your body is always changing," Small said. "I like to document that."

She finished the casting of her own body with Italian paper she bought in Florence. The paper displays each of the astrological signs, a lifelong interest of Small's.

"I think this shows all the different paths my life has taken," she said.

Tonight will be the first time that most of the participating women will see the finished product, and it will be the first time Small will see the entire series in one room.

Tonight's show will be as much a performance art piece as a show of sculpture.

Every piece will be numbered, and the women who posed for the pieces each will be given an envelope with their number in it.

"You won't know who these women are, but they will," Small said. "It will be an interesting dynamic.

Craig admitted it was "weird" to see a physical reproduction of her own body.

"It's like you're outside yourself, staring at yourself," Small said.

"This is a powerful body of work to cast 40 women. Every body was so different. They live in their bodies. This work is about more than the actual form. It's their core.

"There's a lot of power in this piece of clay."

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