Her Rockford roots played a large part in her success. Learn how this ever-evolving artist found opportunities in our region that led to winning two Emmy Awards and launching a nonprofit that helps cancer patients.
Mhen Christal Schanes was growing up in Rockford, she had no idea she’d one day be an Emmy Award-winning hairstylist for “Saturday Night Live,” let alone choose to leave that dream job and teach wig building at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), home to one of the nation’s top wig-building programs. But she did. She also recently launched a nonprofit, WIGwell, through which she makes free custom medical wigs for patients of Winston-Salem’s Derek L.
David Cancer Center who can’t afford to pay $4,000 to $6,000 for a hyper-realistic handtied medical wig.
Yet in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Schanes doing anything else.
While she now makes her home in North Carolina – with husband Marek Kwiatkowsi, who also grew up in Rockford – and their sons Marlowe, 7, and twins Caleb and Luka who turn 6 this summer – virtually everything that led Schanes to her niche in the arts began right here in Rockford.
An Artist Evolves
Born at SwedishAmerican Hospital to Charles and Cathie Schanes, Christal – who went by Christy back in the day – and her brother Cory grew up surrounded by creativity. Little wonder she calls her parents her most important mentors.
“My father’s an artist, but he worked at Chrysler from when he was really young until he retired,” Schanes says. “There were things I saw him doing in innovative and artistic ways and integrating into his life, even though he didn’t feel like he had an opportunity to do something artistic outside of that field. That was always on my brain. I wanted to be an artist, but not just a starving artist. I wanted to find my avenue.”
As soon as she and her brother, 18 months her senior, were able to draw stick figures, their mom introduced them to a game that sparked their imaginations.
“She would take a piece of paper and draw a circle. ‘Here’s the head. Now you put the next feature on.’ I’d draw the body – maybe it was a dog body, or a human body, or an alien or some sort of fantasy creature – and hand the paper back or pass it to my brother if he was playing.
He might put a foot on. It would look crazy! We’d pass this paper back and forth and develop this character, collectively. It was such a mentally freeing process, and I became aware of collaboration on a different level,” Schanes says. “I was learning to have fun and be creative.
It was a huge lesson for me – one that still resonates.”
As soon as Schanes’ own sons were old enough to draw stick figures, she started playing the same game with them.
By age 11, Schanes, who attended Swan Hillman Elementary School, discovered a book on how to draw animals.
“I remember drawing this little dachshund,” she recalls. “I thought the shape of the dog was so comedic. But I wanted to be able to draw him with all of the highlights and shadows in the right places, instead of the silhouette of the dog, which anybody can do. I did a whole series of those drawings. I even had them laminated, which is really hilarious. They’re yellow and discolored, but they’re laminated.”
She still has them. “They really started opening my mind up to realism – and I think that ultimately carried over into wig work, because I want to make everything as real as possible.”
Schanes excelled at art, and as a student at Flynn Middle School she was recruited to paint sets for the theater department.
“By the end of middle school I was really aware of what went on in the theater program,” she says. “One friend dyed his hair jet black because of theater and I thought it was so incredible. That’s when I started to become aware of how people use their hair in chameleon-like ways, and how makeup, too, can influence certain characters.”
High school trips to Chicago museums further expanded her appreciation of art, and a class trip to see a production of “Les Miserables” in Chicago proved revelatory.
“I’d always thought of theater as creating pretty visuals, like a beauty makeup and a pretty wig,” Schanes says. “But when I saw how gritty and dirty and messed up they made these people to become these characters, it made me think about theater in a different light. It’s not just painting pretty pictures, it’s getting to the crux of who these characters are – with the look, the makeup and the hair – and it doesn’t always have to be pretty.”
Schanes realized her dual passions of art and theater were connected. “It was a fascinating time, for sure. The idea that it might be an area to take my art was so exciting,” she says. “It’s living art. It’s on stage. I was very curious.”
At Jefferson High School, Schanes broadened her artistic skills by trying different mediums in art classes taught by Ted Simmering. In her senior year, Schanes’ first attempt at sculpting a human face – a ceramic sculpture called “The Deep” – won first place in a young artists competition at the Rockford Art Museum.
“It’s supposed to look like the hair, the dreads, are floating up to the surface of the water line,” she says. “I had all sorts of firing issues because it was the first clay sculpture I’d done in a larger size. The whole thing blew apart in the kiln, but luckily the head settled into the rubble just the right way so it didn’t fall over and break the hair off.”
The same year, Schanes and some of her fellow art club members – Lindsey Beck, Heather Anderson and Stacy McConnell – entered the Illinois Snow Sculpting Competition held at Sinnissippi Park. Their design, “Making a Snowman,” won first place in the high school division.
Schanes says carving compacted snow while out in the elements – which caused the snow to melt and refreeze and develop ice chunks – was a fun learning experience.
“I think about it every now and then,” she says. “You do what you have to do to be able to succeed in that medium. That’s the kind of open-mindedness I guess I’ve taken with me all through these other projects and trying to meet clients’ needs. It’s figuring it out and cobbling together what’s best for those needs.”
While still in high school, Schanes was hired to paint a portrait of a professional show dog, which led to a side business, Collies on Canvas by Christal.
“When I was painting the very first show Collie, I remember thinking through what needed to be layered on first to make the fur look real,” she says. “When I was painting that fur I started thinking about hair a lot. Not only fur, but hair.”
Her knack for hyper-realism kicked in as she homed in on the various flecks of color in the dogs’ eyes and how light bounced off the texture of the dogs’ noses. She realized she was using color and paint the same way she’d used graphite to create realistic shading on that dachshund she drew as a child, but she was raising her art to a new level.
Graduating to New Challenges
Schanes applied for several college grants and scholarships, receiving The Elizabeth Stein Art Scholarship, named for the woman who established it, photographer Elizabeth Stein. It included a full tuition waiver for Schanes’ undergraduate studies at Illinois State University.
Stein was elderly at the time and needed help around the house, so Schanes volunteered to help. “Listening to her talk about art helped me develop more of a grounded verbiage about art, but just observing her world and what she experienced through photography and what she thought about art was very inspiring to me,” she says.
Schanes’ costume and makeup design instructors at Illinois State influenced her career path and instilled a love for prosthetic makeup. To this day, in her office at UNCSA she has a urethane lizard mask she made in college. “The edges are horrendous, but I remember thinking through the process and coming up with the system that I built the mask with,” Schanes says.
The summer before graduation, she was recruited to make giant headpieces and a kabuki wig for the university’s Shakespeare festival.
“I was ready for the challenge,” she recalls. “Nobody showed me how to do it. I just tested some things out.” She stretched felt over hat forms and used elastic make foundations that conformed to the shape of human heads.
She used the same approach for the wig. “Then I glued this long, red, synthetic hair to it and turned it into a lion’s wig for the kabuki character. I tried to be as historical as possible – not in the way they were built, of course, but in how they looked,” she says. The reaction was positive. “The actors were able to utilize them for their characters, which made me realize how I could influence their energy on stage.”
“That whole section of my life at Illinois State was when I started thinking I was going to be the next great prosthetics artist,” she continues. “Wig-building, although it was a desire of mine to learn, wasn’t necessarily something on my radar to perfect and seek out professionally.”
Yet Schanes applied to the two top graduate programs for prosthetic makeup and wig building. The College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati offered her a full tuition waiver, but something didn’t feel right. But UNCSA didn’t offer financial incentives.
“But I saw the work they were doing in the department at UNCSA and saw a difference in the caliber of students,” she says. “Even if they weren’t going to offer me a scholarship, it was the right place for me.”
There she studied prosthetic makeup and wig building. Her final thesis – to design and build elements for a theater production of “Three Tall Women” – tested everything she’d learned. She had to turn a 21-year-old actress into a 90-year-old woman and create a duplicate body for a scene where the woman sees her body lying in a bed. “Even the dummy needed realistic-looking hands and the face and neck,” Schanes says.
She also hand-tied a realistic wig that showed the character’s hair loss, made partially ventilated wigs for two other key characters, and styled a wig that was meant to look fake.
“All of that, plus the renderings in a seven-week time frame – it was an immense undertaking,” Schanes says. “I even did prosthetic arm covers for the actress playing the oldest character.”
An Artist’s Life
Straight out of grad school, Schanes and her husband (Kwiatkowski) set out for Los Angeles.
“There were a lot of great jobs I was applying for,” she recalls. “We even had apartments lined up to look at, because we were going to decide right then and there: this is the job I’m going to accept, this is the apartment we want, this is the date we’re moving. All of that was going to happen with this trip, but it just didn’t feel right. The whole environment was not what I expected. The jobs were exciting, the interviews went well, and I had two job offers. But I couldn’t make a decision.”
The couple returned to North Carolina, where Schanes worked at a cosmetics store while exploring her career options.
Eventually, a friend from grad school, Jennifer Mooney Bullock, contacted her about working as her assistant hair and makeup artist on a national tour of the “Doctor Dolittle” musical. Kwiatkowski, a musician, was hired onto the sound crew. After three months on the road, the tour was canceled so the show could be retooled.
“My husband and I had just bought a house that summer; now neither of us had a job,” Schanes says. “Luckily, we’d saved up quite a bit from both being on the tour. But two weeks later Jennifer called and said, ‘I have good news and bad news.’”
The bad news: there wasn’t a position for Schanes with the revamped tour.
“The good news was Jennifer had just started a job at Bob Kelly’s wig shop in New York, but was under contract with the tour and didn’t want to leave the wig-building job without a great reference.”
In December 2005, Schanes set up a phone interview with Linda Rice – who supervised all of the wigs the shop made for SNL – but impulsively decided she and her husband should drive overnight to New York so Rice could interview her in person.
“I didn’t think there was any way for me to land this job unless I actually showed Linda what I could do,” Schanes says. “I brought ventilating samples and all sorts of things, even a wig I’d built.”
It worked. Rice hired her on the spot and put her to work immediately.
The timing was fortuitous. SNL was down a stylist and needed someone to style extras for that weekend’s episode.
“Immediately after completing a project at the wig shop I was shuffled over to the studio to interview with the SNL wig designer, Clarice Morgan,” Schanes says.
She was hired part-time at SNL and kept her full-time job at Bob Kelly’s, where Kelly taught the ins and outs of medical wigs. Eventually, Schanes went to full-time at SNL, where she won her first Emmy as part of the hairstyling team in 2012. They won another Emmy the following year.
By then she’d also accepted a teaching job at UNCSA. She and her husband – and by then baby Marlowe – were commuting between North Carolina and New York for each new episode of SNL, and much of that time she was pregnant with the twins, no less. While she loved working at SNL, she had to decide which path to take. She chose education.
As a wig and makeup artist and professor at UNCSA, Schanes teaches students more than how to build wigs. She teaches them to value their skills and their worth. She also started her own company, CHRISTALine Studios. She consolidates her teaching and advising duties into one 9-hour and two 13-hour workdays per week, and spends her other two weekdays on projects for CHRISTALine.
WIGwell grew out of CHRISTALine’s philanthropic medical wig building initiative; 20 percent of the studio’s proceeds go directly to fund WIGwell. Donations make up the balance, but the demand for medical wigs is higher than current funding can support. So, Schanes launched the “Wacky Wig Challenge” on social media to bring awareness – and donations – to WIGwell.
Almost all donated hair can be used for a wig – even if it’s only three inches long.
“When you lose your hair, it’s as if a part of your person or your identity has been lost,” Schanes says. “Being able to have a good-quality wig that’s your hair texture, your hairline, and is custom fit to your head so you know it won’t blow off in the wind gives you the opportunity to live a life of normalcy.”
As a child, Schanes saw firsthand the impact wigs have on everyday life. “At first I didn’t realize that my grandma was wearing a wig and my grandpa was wearing a toupee,” she says. “Although they were wearing them prior to my grandma getting cancer, it was a game changer for me when I started to realize what was going on.”
Every turning point in Schanes’ life has led her to where she is today: using her artistic skills and knowledge to train the next generation of wig builders while using her entrepreneurial experience to restore a sense of self to people afflicted by medical hair loss. “If you want your hobby to be your livelihood, you have to find a way to make money by doing what you love,” Schanes says.
For more information on medical wigs or to donate to WIGwell, visit christalinestudios.com.