Looking into the face of the Grey Ghost

In 1994, sculptor Cindy Debold met the Grey Ghost.

Her first impression of the legendary blues pianist born Roosevelt Williams was that he was rather frail and shy. He was 90 at the time.

The Grey Ghost arrived at Debold’s Austin studio with music historian and record producer Tary Owens to sit for a plaster life mask.

The result was amazing and is currently on display at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. It’s near photographer Michael O’Brien’s vivid color portrait of the Grey Ghost – and next to Clete Shields’ bust of Willie Nelson.

Owens’ widow, singer Maryann Price had it in storage. It’s a majestic, if long-forgotten weathered piece, showing the aging musician with his chin resting in his left hand. The detail is exquisite and haunting.

“He was kinda quiet, kinda shy,” Debold recalled. “There is no way he would have come done this on his own.”  

She had started a series of well-known Texans for her newfound passion for life masks, including politician Barbara Jordan, journalist Liz Carpenter and theater actor Shannon Sedwick.

The Grey Ghost fell asleep during the 20-minute session. “As I was doing it, he fell asleep,” Debold said. She worried that she’d have to do the process again.

“It crunched his face up a lot. The weight of his chin came down. He was super relaxed. After the fact, I thought it gave it a lot more character. It was a happy accident.”

Debold carved the eyes open and added hair to the sculpture while it was fresh, but “he was holding his head like that.”

After the session, she went to see the Grey Ghost perform at the old Elephant Room nightclub. She’ll never forget the elderly musician gingerly ambling toward the piano.

“After he sat down and started playing, it was, like, wow! A transformation,” Debold recounted. “It was like the piano and him were one – like someone plugged him in.”

Debold, who started sculpting in the 1980s, resides and works in Lago Vista. One look at any of her sculptures, and there is no doubt of her calling. She knew it from her very first attempt. “I felt like my hands had a brain in there,” she said.