Waxing Poetic

Waxing Poetic

Working at Madame Tussauds in San Francisco, Haley Davis 13 SC sidles up to legendary gangster Al Capone for a quick touch-up.

“When Tiger Woods had a run-in with a golf club, I had to remove his eyelashes so I could repair the eyelid.” So says Haley Davis 13 SC, who knows nothing about ocular surgery but plenty about maintaining the lifelike wax figures at the newly opened Madame Tussauds in San Francisco. Her RISD experience majoring in Sculpture and studying painting provide her with precisely the skills and confidence needed on the job.

A typical day starts at 7:30 am—hours before Madame Tussauds opens to the public—when Davis and her co-workers painstakingly repair any damage that visitors to the hands-on attraction may have inadvertently inflicted the day before. “People touch Michael Phelps’ belly button so much that we have to repaint it regularly, or they’ll kiss Johnny Depp and leave lipstick on him,” Davis explains. “My goal is to immerse the viewer in another realm—to make people feel as if what they are seeing is alive and present.”

Formed from sturdy fiberglass, the figures feature heads made of a proprietary blend of waxes, with responsibly sourced human hair and yak fur for facial hair. Many of the icons and celebrities represented at Tussauds—including Nicolas Cage, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, among others—sit for the team of artists who create the pieces and also provide hundreds of photographs and measurements for reference.

“Photos are especially helpful when you’re doing the hair and skin tones,” says Davis. “The hair makes a big difference in the likeness. And the way the wax works with the oil paint is so beautiful. We use a splattering technique that gives the skin a real fleshy look.”

Davis started out as an Illustration major but switched to Sculpture when she realized how much she loved building 3D objects. “I started inventing little creatures in the studio and building them entire landscapes to live in,” she recalls. “It was kind of weird and obsessive. My pieces became super-interactive—giant creature costumes that would roam around the gallery mingling with people.” And right after graduating from RISD, she interned at Big Nazo Lab, the puppet-making studio and performance troupe run by Film/Animation/Video faculty member Erminio Pinque 83 IL in Providence.

Davis says that thanks to the valuable crit process at RISD, she’s now able to fully analyze and critique her own work. “The details make all the difference, especially here at Madame Tussauds,” she notes. “Presenting what I made at RISD and openly talking about what could be improved in a piece was so helpful. And making things in the studio didn’t even feel like work. We were all just so interested in our projects. The sense of satisfaction is indescribable.”

Davis also notes the impact of one of her RISD mentors: Brooklyn-based artist George Ferrandi, an adjunct faculty member in Sculpture. “I love the way she talks about art, her interests and what she makes,” Davis explains. “She is so fascinated with things. She taught me that having an open mind to the world around you really shows in the things you produce.”

In her current role at Madame Tussauds, Davis says she is constantly putting herself in the viewers’ shoes, hoping to “make a magical experience for them.” And working so closely with the icons she grew up with has been a mind-blowing personal experience as well. “I almost cried when I first saw ET,” she exclaims. “Wrapping him up in his blanket. . . it was too much!”

Simone Solondz

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