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Plastic Fantastic: On Duane Hanson’s Woman Eating

Maybe She's Born with it; Maybe it's Fiberglass...

Duane Hanson, Woman Eating, 1971, polyester resin and fiberglass with oil and acrylic paints and found accessories, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2005.22A-Z

Duane Hanson’s Woman Eating is strangely magnetic. Hyper-realistic, the sculpture captivates viewers who encounter it on the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The woman at the center of the work appears fossilized from another era, frozen in an everyday moment. Yet she is sculpted, specifically made of fiberglass, a plastic material disguised to represent flesh and the human form.

The fiberglass in this sculpture is covered with oil and acrylic paints and accompanied by found accessories and objects. Woman Eating (1971) is an early work in Hanson’s series depicting everyday people, which he began the year before. To construct these figurative sculptures, Hanson developed a particular process of casting in order to use the synthetic substance.

I became interested in Hanson’s work with plastics while I was in residence as a predoctoral fellow at SAAM. I was working on my dissertation, Plastic Fantastic: American Sculpture in the Age of Synthetics, which considers how artists from the 1960s and 1970s used plastics. While Hanson (1925–1996) is not featured in my dissertation, I have always been curious about his use of synthetics, since he began experimenting with plastics in the early 1960s, before many of his contemporaries.

Hanson first encountered fiberglass while living in Germany in the 1950s. There, he met artist Georg Grygo, who was using the material in public art commissions. Hanson at the time was teaching art in the U.S. Army Dependent School System. By 1961, he was stateside again, living in Atlanta, and starting to experiment with fiberglass on his own, at a time when industrial companies were making plastics increasingly more available to artists.


The woman at the center of the work appears fossilized from another era, frozen in an everyday moment. Yet she is sculpted, specifically made of fiberglass, a plastic material disguised to represent flesh and the human form.


Fiberglass is a hybrid plastic substance, marrying woven glass fibers with liquid polyester resin. First developed in the 1930s by the Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation, the material is made by splitting molten glass into thin filaments and weaving them together to produce textiles. The glass fabric is then dipped in or brushed with the liquid polyester resin as reinforcement and cured until rigid.

Fiberglass is especially adaptable for artists, as the glass cloth can be placed in a mold and then brushed with resin to create solid yet lightweight surfaces, akin to papier-mâché in process. Unlike other plastics that rely exclusively on industrial molding and extruding, fiberglass allows artists to work in the comfort of their own studios.

A research fellow talks to an audience about Duane Hanson's Woman Eating

The author speaking next to Duane Hanson’s Woman Eating.

In making works like Woman Eating, Hanson first cast directly from live models, often friends. Casting was done in one day, as models were greased with Vaseline—to avoid any hair pulling in the process—and then covered with plaster and cheesecloth to create the molds. Hanson used these molds to create the fiberglass figures, building two or three layers of flesh-toned, liquid polyester resin and then the glass fibers until the structure was solid. Then the plastic forms were removed from the molds and painted. Early works like Woman Eating were painted with thick coats of oil paint, which he later touched up with acrylic. He added blemishes, veins, and other details, attaching hair, clothing, and accessories last, as the final pieces for the sculptural collage.

While the artist worked with fiberglass throughout the early 1970s, in 1976 Hanson started using polyvinyl, a different plastic material for casting that allowed for finer details. With this new substance, he was able to insert hairs one at a time instead of using wigs. Woman Eating, then, is an important example of the artist’s work in fiberglass, a material that allowed him to construct the arresting sculptures that continue to resonate with viewers today.

I am indebted to SAAM’s conservators, who shared their extensive research on this sculpture with me. Conservator Jamie Gleason’s work treating the work was featured on Eye Level in the blog post, Conserving Duane Hanson’s Woman Eating.

Recently named Curator at The Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C., Danielle O’Steen was a 2017-2018 Big Ten Academic Alliance Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellow at SAAM. This blog post is based on a talk she gave at the museum as part of the Art Bites series, where SAAM’s research fellows share their discoveries about artworks from the collection.

Link to the original article here.

Dancing with the Spurs: On David Levinthal’s Wild West Photographs

How Rodeo Star Ty Murray's Cowboy Code Resonates with Levinthal's Photographs

Media - 2018.3.190 - SAAM-2018.3.190_1 - 134538
David Levinthal, „Untitled from the series Wild West,“ 1989, instant color print, Smithsonian American Art Museum

It was equally as dreamy as it was exhilarating. This is the message David Levinthal and the curators of American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs seem to communicate in the „Wild West“ section of the exhibition. The dusty ranches and bucking horses create such a compelling narrative that viewers almost forget that the subjects of the photographs are toys.


Art Does Have an Impact: Visitors Respond

Sharing Memories, Hopes and Fears at Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975

A photograph of a wall with a sign that says "This exhibition makes me feel..."

Visitors leave hand-written notes after viewing the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975. Photo by Libby Weiler.

Melissa Hendrickson is an Interpretation and Audience Research Specialist at SAAM.

More than forty years after its conclusion, the Vietnam War remains an emotional and affecting topic. Whether you lived through the conflict or were born long after its end, you likely have strong feelings about this divisive period in American history. Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, on view through August 18, 2019 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, explores the era through the lens of its artwork.

During the war, artists, like many ordinary Americans, felt compelled to respond to their political, social, and cultural moment. The artworks they created are powerful and provocative, reflecting the turmoil and passion of the decade. Recognizing the strong emotions inherent to the topic and works, SAAM’s interpretation team worked closely with curator Melissa Ho to create space in the exhibition for visitors to rest, reflect, and respond.

Our process began by engaging with SAAM visitors. Through surveys, interviews, and in-depth focus groups, we explored visitors’ associations with the Vietnam War, their questions about the exhibition’s content, and how the museum could best support their experience.

One result of that feedback was the creation of a dedicated interpretive gallery. This discrete space includes an in-depth timeline, which puts exhibition artworks into context with major political and social events of the period, as well as a communal table, where visitors are invited to pause, reflect, and connect with friends or strangers.

A major element of the interpretive gallery is an extensive response wall, which encourages visitors to share written feedback through two prompts: “The art in this exhibition makes me think…” and “The art in this exhibition makes me feel…”

Visitors encounter the timeline in the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975

Visitors examine the timeline in the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975. Photo: SAAM staff.

To date, nearly four thousand people have shared their reactions. Their responses reflect a range of emotions: pride, shame, regret, awe, confusion, optimism, fear. Some share their memories of the Vietnam War era and their own experience as a soldier or activist. Others express frustration at their lack of knowledge about the period and their desire to learn more about its overlooked histories. Some recognize soldiers of color, who were drafted in disproportionately high numbers. Others honor family members who came to the United States as refugees from Southeast Asia. Many draw parallels to the contemporary moment and reflect on lessons learned, or ignored.

The handful of cards below represent a range of distinct voices, thoughts, and personal responses. If you’d like to visit and add your thoughts to the interpretive gallery, the exhibition remains on view through August 18, 2019.  Following the presentation at SAAM, the exhibition will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Art where it will be on display from Sept. 29 through Jan. 5, 2020.

Feedback card from Artists Respond exhibition
A visitor comment card describing outrage over the Vietnam War
A visitor respond to the exhibition by writing in Vietnamese about the pain of the war

Translation: We will need a few more generations to ease the pain of the Vietnam War

A visitor's comments reveal a personal connection to war
A visitor creates a map linking Vietnam and the US as his mother was a refugee
A history teacher describes how students reply on memes to express how they feel
A visitor draws a hand and a skeletal hand

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