Asa Ames (18-23-1851) died of consumption at the age of 27, leaving behind a series of carved wooden busts of children. The most distinctive of these sculptures is that of a young girl in a red pleated dress, whose head is painted with a phrenologist’s chart. I find this bust especially provoking, as phrenology charts are usually depicted on expressionless dummy heads, disembodied and devoid of any human touches. This girl wears a beautiful dress, perhaps much loved, or saved for nice occasions. Her pupils have mostly been rubbed away but her irises are brown and her mouth is slightly puckered and painted with a vibrant shade. She is a sanguine being, mapped upon by the markings of a pseudo-science that jars with the viewer’s desire to see her as human.
Ames’s other portraits are far more conventional, but full of personality and an almost unsettling intensity. His busts of a young woman and a boy in a suit are deep character studies of endless possibility.
Of the one image of Ames that remains to us, the New York Times writes, “Ames was probably ill when this photograph was made, and perhaps he knew that obscurity threatened. Packed with details about his leisure interests as well as his “sculpturing,” with his works doubling as an imagined audience, this carefully constructed image has the same intensity as Ames’s portraits. It is a detailed message in a bottle that he sent into the future, which is now.” - Roberta Smith, “Filling in the Contours of a Surprising Golden Age,” 4.25.2008