How to make a wax statue

May 12, 2014

Paris, France

By Philippe Wojazer

When I was very young, my parents took me to Paris’ famed Grevin Wax Museum. I can still recall wandering amongst the important figures of the time, historical heroes and rock stars. I remember how impressed I was by those strange, still people and being frightened by the way they seemed to stare back at you. It was as if a magician had cast a spell on those famous people.

Paris' Grevin Wax Museum hairdresser Virginie Dahan puts the final touches to Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger wax statue in the Grevin Wax Museum in Prague

Years passed, and recently I went back there and asked if I could spend some time in their workshop and see how this spell was cast. When I told them the story of my childhood visits they granted me access to the “magical tower” of the museum’s workshop in order to shoot some pictures for Reuters.

REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Paris' Grevin Wax Museum staff work around the wax statue of late French singer Edith Piaf in their workshop in Paris

Gallery: How to make a wax statue

A few weeks later, the press attaché called me to say that they were about to make 70 statues for their new museum in Prague and I would be welcome in their workshop. But I had to promise not to disclose its address to anyone. I felt like Harry Potter trying to find platform 9 3/4 to take the train to Hogwarts.

When the day came, I found myself at a very discreet location in a recently-built building in Paris and so began an enchanting visit through the different workshops. There were the dressmakers (all needles and fabric), the hairdressers (they looked at my hair and asked me if I wanted to make a donation), the technicians, (cutting arms, legs, walking around with body parts) and the quietest place of all, the sculptors’ room.

Paris Grevin museum sculptor Eric Saint Chaffray works on the head of Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger at their workshop in Paris

The sculptors come from many different backgrounds like Eric Saint Chaffray, schooled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But others, like Stephane Barret, a former hydraulic pumps salesman, discovered a passion for sculpting in his thirties. I was really intrigued by their ability to transform an image from 2D to 3D. Usually the sculptors work from photographs to create a 3D statue. It takes a minimum of three weeks to transform a lump of unmodelled clay into one of your favorite rock star’s uncannily-realistic faces.

Helene Jonca one of the painters of the Paris Grevin Wax Museum works on the head of late French singer Edith Piaf at their workshop in Paris

The technicians create moulds of body parts and melt the wax in a large dusty room filled with the sounds of rock music and laughter. Estelle, a hair artist, is a third-generation wig-maker and will work for five days on just a pair of eyebrows. She is surrounded by a dozen people holding heads upside down to attach individual hairs to the bald wax head, gradually bringing life to the character they are working on. Franck, Helene, and Beatrice paint the faces, hands, arms and legs, giving them a flesh-like, living tone.

Wax hands for the statue of late French singer Edith Piaf are checked in the museum workshop in Paris

It is a very moving moment for all of them when the statue’s parts are assembled and the figure is dressed. Throughout the final stages, Grevin Museum President Beatrice de Reynies closely watches and might suggest some last minute finishing touches. What really unites all those craftsmen is the love of their art and their team spirit.

Helene Jonca, one of the painters of the Paris Grevin Wax Museum works on the head of late French singer Edith Piaf in their workshop in Paris

Being in their workshop, it felt like standing on a small island in the middle of a frenetic sea. All around me were artists intensely working on the delicate shape of an eye, the thickness of a lip, or the graceful poise of a hand. It was as if the outside world didn’t exist. The workshop truly felt like a magical place.

When I had finished my assignment and was saying goodbye, the sculptors promised that if they ever needed to model a photographer for one of their “anonymous” characters they knew who to call. So you might just see my statue at the Grevin Museum… one day.

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