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Masks

(c) 1996 by Rupert Schmitt

This article appeared in the September, 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine


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This essay will tell something about what masks are, how to make three different masks, and why I have started making masks. My vision is that men in the men's movement will start making masks for serious spiritual use at gatherings of men, to add another level to men's work.

To many Americans, a mask is a trivial object purchased at a drug store or rented at a costume store to wear to a Halloween party, or we dress our children in a costume of a monster or space alien to wear while trick-or-treating. We often think of a mask as something to be worn, and sometimes made, by children. Unfortunately, we limit ourselves with this understanding.

According to author and maskmaker Thurston James, in much of the world "the single word 'mask' stands for a total disguise ... [including] all of the prescribed gestures, movement and dance that are associated with the character being portrayed."

As a child I made a puppet, not a mask, of Frankenstein's monster, which still has power and hangs on my wall alongside several masks. Perhaps the puppet sparked my interest in masks. Several years ago, I, my sons, my sisters and brother all stayed overnight at the home of a childhood friend, the sculptor Ruth Asawa. We passed through the simple wooden gate and walked through a garden full of sculpted objects. And then I was overwhelmed; to my left, it seemed as if hundreds of faces were looking at me. Ruth had taken life masks of her friends and attached them to the entryway wall. It was hard for me to leave all of those people and enter the house.

Later, Ruth took me to her studio. A huge mask of Buckminster Fuller, the futurist, looked down at me. Bucky had been a friend of Ruth's, and he had been unhappy with the nose-too big, in his opinion. I think she redid the nose and made it smaller, retaining the intention, however, of restoring the nose to its original size after the death of her friend.

There is a paradox I have found in the making of masks, which comes from the use of other sources for ideas. With Native Americans, a mask is owned. It is not something someone else can copy. I am attracted to the art of Native Americans, especially the artists of the Pacific Northwest, yet I am confronted with a dilemma of not wanting to steal from other cultures. I am also attracted to African masks, rituals and dancing. Should I then copy the design of an African mask? I think not. I believe I must go my own way.

This leaves me with the task of creating my own mask and of creating my own rituals. I use some of my rich northern European culture for inspiration, yet I do not know if my ancestors wore masks. In creating my own masks, I also take inspiration from Africa and North America, so I create hybrid masks. I attempt to see and feel the power and then veer off, like an errant billiard ball, in my own direction.

In 1995, while preparing for a vision quest with several other men from Seattle Wisdom Council, I took the name of Coyote. As Coyote, I traveled through the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida, stayed in youth hostels, and was gifted with a Brotherhood Native American sweat. Upon my return, I spoke up at Wisdom Council and said, "We don't have enough color at our meetings. We need colorful costumes and masks." At that meeting, a small group of us decided to make masks.

That week, I bought mask-making materials at art-supply companies and flea markets. Three of us met three times. During the first session, the head of Coyote emerged as a framework of coat hangers and tie wire. One of the men brought the coat hangers, and the other, a metal worker, provided construction tie wire. Both of the other men were more skilled than I at forming the wire, and gave me good advice. The wire required much force to bend, and often the curves were wrong and had to be redone. The metal mask framework looked sort of funny, more like a Picasso mask, with one side different than the other. Twice, I considered abandoning the initial attempt and starting over. Finally, the framework seemed OK. During the week I continued to rebend the wire, and to also shape it over my head. Th! e mouth was especially difficult, because I wanted the mouth open. During this session, Fred Bellin made a mask of a long-beaked bird by covering a balloon with paper mâché. The bill was formed of cardboard attached with duct tape.

At the second meeting, I brought a roll of marine canvas purchased at a flea market. The canvas was cut, and attached to the wire with melted plastic sticks purchased in a crafts store. The cutting of the canvas took courage, as the mask took two or three yards of material. The ears were especially difficult to form. The back of the canvas came down as sort of a cape. The front also came down like a bib. Circular holes were cut for the eyes. The canvas was folded over to give smooth, rounded edges. A tongue was formed and hot-glued to the back of the mouth. During the second week, I purchased a football helmet from a thrift store and cut it up for a more comfortable support for the mask. The straps fitted under my chin.

We painted the mask during the third session. Two cans of spray paint were immediately sucked up by the canvas. Plastic wolf eyes were attached to the eye sockets. They show the viewer centered shiny eyes, while allowing the wearer to see forward, along the edge of the eyes.

That same evening, we still had time to make two additional masks using plaster gauze. The plaster gauze can be bought in art-supply stores and some surgical-supply stores. Before using gauze, it is good to cut a roll into pieces two to three inches long of several different widths. You may also want to use a few longer pieces. Fill a mixing bowl with water. Bring the gauze and water into the bathroom and if you like pain, you can skip the next step, which is to cover your face with Vaseline. If you have a beard, you want to get your beard all gooey with that petroleum jelly. Now you are ready.

Carefully dip individual pieces of tape into the water, eliminate excess water with a paper towel or by squeezing, and start taping your face. You may want to start with your forehead. Run the tape in different directions to provide strength to your mask. Avoid your hair. Keep applying the gauze until you have applied several layers. If you tape over your eyes completely, you will no longer be able to see what you are doing. Leave openings so you can still breathe. The finished mask will look like the illustration where I am holding the mask onto my face.

When the mask is dry, gently pull it off. You can strengthen weak places with additional gauze and trim rough edges. When completely dry, the mask can be painted with clear polyurethane, shellac, varnish or acrylic paint. After fastening an elastic band, you can then wear the mask. This mask can also be used for making a plaster impression for developing other faces. This process may be covered in a future article. The book Maskmaking by Carole Sivin contains good instructions regarding this process.

After the solvents have evaporated, I try the wolf/coyote on. My muzzle seems awfully long. I think of Red Riding Hood. The better to smell you with, my dear. My eyes are disconnected. I can look either to the left or to the right. Perhaps my next mask will have a shorter muzzle and binocular vision. Like all art, maskmaking is an evolutionary process, and I have much more to learn and to do.

Rupert "Coyote" Schmitt is a writer and a field biologist. He was raised in a den of artists in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He lives in Seattle and can be reached at (206) 781-1312.


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