Holding hands forever and ever

Craftswoman Maura O’Connell talks to EMMA CONNOLLY about working with families and individuals to capture wonderful mementos
Holding hands forever and ever
Maura O'Connell creating one of her life casts.

A CORK woman is helping people stay close to each other — even though they may be thousands of miles apart — thanks to her unique service.

Originally from Fermoy and now living in West Cork, Maura O’Connell runs a lifecasting service.

Her path wasn’t an obvious one and only came about after she took a cast of her pregnant self a week before her first child was born, sparking her curiousity and interest.

Describing herself as “crafty and creative”, she studied Social Science in UCC and then worked in the public service in Cork city where she qualified as an Adult Career Guidance Counsellor.

“It’s a bit ironic that I was working as a career guidance counsellor but didn’t really know myself what I wanted to do. I’m a people person and loved engaging with the public but I couldn’t see myself in an office-based job forever. I’ve always been crafty and creative and most of my hobbies involve making and doing of some form.

“I did a little bit of casting in art class at school and when I was pregnant I saw a picture of a belly cast and loved it. I did a bit of reading up and one night about a week before the baby was born I talked my husband through it and we made a bellycast. After that, people saw it and I made a few more and eventually offered it as a service.”

But the idea of lifecasting was what really interested her, with the detail and accuracy it entailed. At this stage Maura had two small children and continued to experiment: “I spent a lot of time reading and much, much more time practicing. Like any craft, practice, practice and practice will hone your skill. For a couple of years you couldn’t walk past me without having some body part cast! I eventually tracked down a course in Limerick School of Art and Design and did an intensive mould making and casting course which helped me fine tune my skill. After a lot of trial and error I got to the point where I felt I had a product and a service I could offer people.”

At her studio in Dunmanway, she now primarily focuses on hands — but says any body part can be lifecast.

“In the context of family, hands are hugely significant. Whether it’s the hand that held yours as a child, your own child’s hand or those of a lover, hands are wonderfully intimate and evocative.

Family Circle by Maura O'Connell.
Family Circle by Maura O'Connell.

“The most popular service is what I call the Family Circle, a family grouping of interlinked hands. The Family Circle creates a very strong feeling of unity and strength. It’s also a lovely piece to pass on in the family when the children are older. I love the idea of an adult showing their children or grandchildren a cast of their hand as a child.

“Other popular castings are for wedding gifts or anniversary gifts. Often, adult children will have their parents’ hands cast as a gift for a significant anniversary, knowing that in time the cast will become even more significant.”

Her favourite pieces to work on are those involving a grandparent and grandchild.

“Last year, I did a piece for a lady, her own grandfather was 95 and her daughter was five, so we did a cast of her little hand on top of his. The image is so beautiful, the detail and lines and history contained in the old hand contrasted with the smooth little hand that has a lifetime of history yet to create. Imagine when she is an adult and will have this piece of her hand with her great-grandfathers, stunning!”

One customer encounter stands out, Maura recalls.

“Avril is originally from Cork city but now lives in Florida with her husband and young children. A friend of hers in Cork shared a post of mine earlier in the year and Avril spotted it and got in touch. She told me how her Mam, who is 82, is still living in Cork and that every time Avril visits and returns to the US she is very lonesome for her. She was coming in the summer and asked if I would do their hands. So of course I was delighted, my first international client!

“Not long after she went back to Florida, she texted me saying they had to pack up the house and move out because of Hurricane Irma. She told me one of the first things she packed was her cast of her mother’s hand in hers. She said just feeling her hand brought her comfort. I love the idea that they are an ocean apart but are still holding hands.”

She recalls another poignant job.

“A while ago a customer got in touch and told me about a family member who had died several years previously from a serious illness. While in hospital a special mesh mask was made to hold the head still for a medical procedure and the customer wondered if I would be able to get some kind of impression from the mask. I was able to get an impression which showed the shape of the face, brow, nose, and cheekbones, no great detail but a definite image was created. That was obviously an emotional piece to work on.”

The customer element of casting only requires them to be in situ for around 25 minutes.

“There is then several hours work needed to get it ready for display. Generally, the piece is ready to collect about three weeks after the mould is made. Due to the time needed for the casting material to set, this kind of pose is not suitable for very young children, they just can’t sit still long enough! Some adults have trouble sitting still too! Realistically, they need to be aged around four to pull it off, although Peppa Pig or a lolly can help create a distraction.”

Prices start from €80 per hand and pieces are usually mounted on a painted board ready to hang.

Recently, Maura has been experimenting making moulds using some of the wild flowers growing in the hedgerows around her. “Fuchsia is very much associated with West Cork and I have managed to take impressions of some fuchsia and cast them in bas relief, where the detail stands out from the background. I’m loving the detail it captures from the plant and want to develop this more.”

See (http://www.westcorkcastingstudio.ie), Facebook and Instagram pages.

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