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These days, a soon-to-be mother can commemorate her pregnancy with more than just in-utero photographs and delivery-room video footage: Area artist Donna Stovall-Eaton offers belly casting for expectant moms at her Capitol Heights, Md., studio.
Clients normally visit Stovall-Eaton in their eighth or ninth month. “I see a lot of first babies and women who had a hard time with fertility,” she says. “They want to capture the moment. There’s photography, but it’s entirely another thing when you can feel a cast. You can say [to your child], ‘This is where you were!’”
Sometimes, exactly where they were. “As I’m putting the cast on,” says Stovall-Eaton, “the baby is moving, and there are impressions of the baby’s head or foot on the belly.”
A self-taught artist, the 52-year-old began experimenting with plaster casting more than 20 years ago, using family members as guinea pigs. “My son grew up with straws in his mouth,” she jokes.
Two years ago, Stovall-Eaton gave up her steady government job to pursue art full-time in her basement studio. Since then, she’s exhibited her work at the Francine Haskins Studio and Howard University’s Blackburn Center.
Feminist artist Kiki Smith uses body casts to convey the structures and functions of women’s bodies with rough, visceral forms. In contrast, Stovall-Eaton’s casts are smooth and decorative, elevating the shape of a woman’s pregnant body to an icon. Naturally Gifted, currently on display at Roxanne’s Artiques in Brookland, shows an engorged bronze belly encircled by a pair of hands. A black net embellished with gold beads cloaks the shoulders and breasts.
Not all of the artist’s works are pregnant bellies. Other body casts displayed at Roxanne’s—such as one of a muscular backside (Stovall-Eaton’s studio is playfully called Ass’Sets, LLC)—recall the monumentality of Renaissance figures. In fact, she gleans a lot of her inspiration from another student of the human form, Michelangelo. “I’m crazy for him,” Stovall-Eaton says. During a recent trip to Italy, she saw “David in all of his glory….You just want to touch it.”
She puts her tactile urges to good use during a demonstration at Roxanne’s on a recent Saturday, making a plaster cast of a woman’s torso while some 18 gallery visitors look on.
Wearing a black tank top and yoga pants, Stovall-Eaton looks like a dancer as she quickly shifts from table to model, dipping strips of plaster gauze in warm water and deftly applying them to the woman, covering the jaw, neck, chest, and stomach.
Within minutes, Stovall-Eaton holds up a rapidly drying cast resembling a snug-fitting shirt. “Now my real work begins,” she declares. After making an initial cast, she builds it up with plaster and sands it down. She repeats this process three to four times to create a durable piece, which she then paints and decorates with beads, shells, or even children’s handprints. Stovall-Eaton may take up to two months to complete a cast, which can cost $300 or more, depending on its embellishments.
Although layered with plaster and paint, a cast retains traces of the model’s own shape—the crease of a neck or the slope of a shoulder—which are vital to the piece’s integrity. “We’re nature’s art,” marvels Stovall-Eaton. “Can’t be anything more beautiful than that!”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.