Over the last 20 years, Lia Di Leo has sculpted more than 600 figures for wax museums from Hollywood to Nashville to Singapore. It is the nature of her business to create likenesses of people who have died.
She flips through a scrapbook of photographs in her Northridge studio, scanning her re-creations of departed celebrities: Louis Armstrong, several Popes and presidents, Hitler.
"This was my first," she said, pointing to a figure of the late film and opera star Mario Lanza. "The family came to the unveiling and they cried. I have done so many dead people that I am used to having them around."
But De Leo finds a new group of figures inhabiting her studio more disturbing than any she has sculpted before. For the past two months, Di Leo has been fashioning the seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded during liftoff last January.
"I can't say that I work and cry, but it feels that way," said the Reseda woman, who left Rome 30 years ago yet still speaks with a thick Italian accent.
"It's the strangest feeling of being sorry and trying to do the best work because I feel a responsibility," she said. "It is so close to their deaths. But I feel this is a good thing because it is a tribute to them."
The display was commissioned by the Hollywood Wax Museum. Tucked between a coffee shop and a tobacconist's on Hollywood Boulevard, the museum stands out among a stretch of aging buildings with its facade of purple and rows of marquee lights. Some 500-600 people a day pay $5 each to view the museum's 170 wax figures.
The seven wax astronauts--depicting Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison S. Onizuka, Michael J. Smith, Francis R. Scobee and Judith Resnik--are nearly completed and will be placed in the museum as soon as reproductions of the Challenger crew's blue uniforms arrive.
"I don't want people to think that we are trying to capitalize on the tragedy," said Raubi Sundher, vice president and general manager of the museum. "We thought it would be a nice tribute to them."
Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston said they were not aware of the wax museum's planned tribute. But Louis Parker, manager of the exhibit program at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said the space agency would have no reservations about such a display.
"If it's done in good taste for a museum, I don't think there is any apprehension," Parker said, adding that NASA has received numerous requests from artists wishing to do renderings of the crew. It is not surprising that there has been such interest in memorializing the Challenger crew, said Rod Gorney, a professor of psychology at UCLA.
"The urge to memorialize is an urge to overcome the wound, to heal the injury," Gorney said. "It is a way of diminishing the dread of a traumatic experience."
But different types of memorials have different psychological effects on those who view them.
Reincarnating the Subjects
Even the most vivid oil painting or bronze sculpture remains clearly an artist's interpretation of the lost person, Gorney said. Because it lacks explicit realism, a traditional work of art evokes the symbolic meaning of the person or event. The sorrow of death may be overshadowed by a sense of the departed person's courage or honor.
"A wax museum does something different than a work of art," Gorney said. "They attempt to reincarnate the person or the event rather than to symbolize it. You see the people there looking as they did in life. That gives it a horrifying feeling.
"The wax museum helps you master the trauma by rubbing your nose in it, by forcing you to re-experience the event," he said. "If you are helped in getting over the trauma, it is by being desensitized."
Indeed, Di Leo's wax Challenger mannequins are eerily realistic and somewhat shocking at first glance. She worked from magazine pictures and NASA photographs. She sculpts the faces from clay first, then casts the heads in wax. Surgical glass eyes, dentures and human hair wigs are then added. Skin color is reproduced with oil paint. Even the bodies are specially made. Di Leo casts them to proper size in fiberglass.
2 to 3 Weeks
Each figure takes two to three weeks to complete, although Di Leo usually works on several at a time. She receives $3,000 to $5,000 a figure, depending on its difficulty. She paused to apply a touch more paint to the wax face of Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the civilian teacher who was aboard the shuttle.
"They're never perfect enough for me," she said.
Not all of Di Leo's figures are of the dead. She has recreated such living celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Tony Orlando, Mr. T and Burt Reynolds, whose reclining figure she sculpted in the nude.
"That was a difficult one," she said.
Di Leo was once strictly a bronze sculptor who specialized in busts and fountains. She began working with wax after she moved to Hollywood in the early 1960s. The Hollywood Wax Museum had just opened and she visited the owner.
No Experience at First
"The guy asked if I could do wax figures," recalled Di Leo. "Sure," she told him. "I had never done wax figures before but I didn't want to turn down a job."
More recently, she has sculpted figures for use in movies. Her prehistoric man was frozen in ice in the movie "Iceman." Di Leo fashioned the figure of a nude woman cut in half for the grizzly murder scene in "True Confessions."
During the filming of "True Confessions," workers transported the figure to and from the movie set in the back of a pickup truck, Di Leo said. One day, a passing driver spotted the bloodied body in the back of the truck. The driver telephoned the police, who eventually traced the pickup's license plate number to the movie company and settled the misunderstanding.
Although Di Leo still works with bronze, wax figures have dominated her time of late. She has been working in the studio seven days a week for the last few months.
Nuremberg Trial Figures
Crowded into the small, cramped workshop are about 180 figures for another display she is preparing. This one will recreate a scene from the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. There are figures of judges, Nazis and concentration camp survivors. The figures will be placed in a historical wax museum opening soon in Los Angeles.
And, of course, there is the shuttle crew, which should be placed in Hollywood by the end of this month, Sundher said. The wax astronauts will stand in front of a photographic mural of the space shuttle. The set will be built directly across from the U.S. Presidents set, where such figures as Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy reside.
Although the Challenger and Nuremberg projects have been her most somber wax works to date, Di Leo said they are two of which she is proud.
"I think historical things are important," she said. "People should remember."