When Masks Do Not Mask

November 8, 2011

Masking has been the life of My Future for three weeks.  Student masks were seen wandering around on Halloween, others were on exhibit at an art show in Yakima celebrating Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and others are displayed on parents mantels.

The type of masking we do in My Future is a process of art engaging body and community.  Because the mask is plaster/fabric based, the one whose face creates the mask cannot make the mask themselves.  Rather, community must be engaged—it is a two-person process, in fact, it is a two-artist process.  For a mask to happen, one person applies plaster embedded fabric over the face of their partner.  This means a certain level of trust must exist between the two partners.  As the plasterer places fabric over the face of the plastered, they mold the curve of a cheek, the dimple of the chin, the crease of nose and face, and find they come to know their fellow artist in a way they never expected—they learn their fellow artist is so much different and so much the same as themselves.  That level of trust increases if the plaster is applied over closed eyelids, for then the plasterer becomes responsible for keeping the plastered artist safe—which is very important in a room of 20 middle and high school students!  Soon after the process of plastering begins, it ends when the plaster dries enough to fall away from the face, and the art is half done.  (At this stage, the plasterer becomes the plastered and vise versa.)

The next day, when the mask has fully dried, is an introspective time for the plastered.  One, they find their mask is never what they thought it would be.  For the first time as an artist they learn another person has been the determiner of their fate.  That while the mask has their attributes, all aspects of the mask to this point, like final texture (smooth or rough) or depth (where three pieces of fabric were laid as opposed to two or four), has been in the hands of their neighbor.  Second, as they look at their mask, this dried mass of plaster, for the first time they begin to wonder, do I really look and feel like this—to others, to myself?  Finally the get to the question: What in the world, will I do with color and fabric and beads to make this mask my own?

The whole body of the individual now engages.  Not only hands and eyes with paintbrush, but the emotional and the spiritual self comes alive as the artist takes into consideration color, depth, balance, shading, rhythm, perspective, symbol, contrast, and unity.  As the artist risks the first stroke of the paintbrush they connect with something unexplainable residing deep within self.  For some, this is a contemplative time and they move to a table away from the others and connect with their mask silently.  For others it is an expressive time and they smile, talk, and joke as paint, cloth, and beads are applied.

The final mask tells a story about the person from whose face it came.  It speaks to how a friend understands them—a rough or smooth texture matters (it also speaks a little about the friends patience and experience with plaster as well!).  And it talks about how they experience themselves—beads vs. cloth matters.  The mask might also be enlightening in another way…it’s just fun to play with plaster!

© David B. Bell 2011

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