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Clay mask workshop.

Most of us have worn a mask at one time or another. Masks can represent so many things, such as emotions (happy, sad, fearful) and power. The familiar "comedy and tragedy" masks, derived from ancient Greek theater, are just one example from mask history.

Death masks from the ancient Egyptians influenced the ancient Romans into creating similar masks for their departed. Masks can represent many things: animals, gods or even past kings. And, of course, there is King Tut's familiar and opulent gold-inlaid death mask, from about 1343 B.C.

African masks can not only distinguish different tribes, areas and animals, but also signify fertility, social place, etc. The wooden masks of Mexico have always intrigued me--such as the sharp horns and red face of El Diablo sculpted with a frightening expression. The masks of "Carnival"--a festive time celebrated just prior to Lent--have their roots in France and Venice, Italy (Carnevale di Venezia), and have spread to Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans.

My childhood was filled with masks: The Good (Lone Ranger, Zoro), The Bad (Green Goblin) and The Ugly (boogeymen and monsters). Today we have Spiderman and Batman-comic-book heros brought to life on the silver screen--all of whom wear masks to hide their true identity.

Let's not forget the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with their artistic names: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello. And, last but not least, there are the masked Mexican Lucha Libre wrestlers (luchadores), who create performance personas reflected in the masks they wear.

Any culture you study in the world, chances are you will find masks in the peoples' past and present-day lives

Though masks are made of so many different materials, I make them out of clay. My clay mask workshop for art teachers evolved out of a need to have a wet slab form on which to experiment with underglazes. I found just giving them clay and saying, "Create I something we can paint underglazes on," left most participants in a stagnant state. So I began shouting out vague instructions to make a simple day mask over a hump mold made of a waded-up ball of newspaper. Creating a mask form allowed us to then paint on underglazes and add decoration from add-on clay pieces, then carve back through the moist underglaze to the clay to decorate the surface by sgraffito.

I have been presenting these mask workshops along with an electric-kiln-firing lecture to both art teachers and clay artists for decades. The workshop is a great clay project that provides an opportunity to interject history, culture, wet-clay handbuilding techniques and, most of all, fun into the classroom.


* Understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.

* Understand and apply media, techniques and processes.


Second-grade through adult students will ...

* create a clay mask with minimal tools.

* create and decorate unfired masks with vitreous engobes.

* learn about masks of various cultures.


* Moist, red, low-fire clay

* Wire clay cutter

* Canvas-covered boards, bats or thick cardboard

* 2-ounce applicators

* Fettling knife (or ordinary butter knife)

* White casting slip and empty pint jars

* Velvet underglazes

* Newspaper

* Half-inch and 1-inch bamboo brushes

* Scratch tools


For an "integrated curriculum" approach, students could be asked to create a presentation about their chosen mask and the culture from which it comes. Images found on the Internet could be included for visual interest.


* Ancient Egyptian Kings and Queens

* Ancient Greek Theater

* African (Senufo, Goma, Biombo, etc.)

* Indonesia (Balinese topeng)

* Chinese (Tibetan, Shamanic, dramatic)

* Japanese (Noh, Kyogen)

* Superheroes and Villains

* Lucha Libre Wrestlers (1950s to present)

For over 30 years, David L. Gamble has been involved with ceramic arts and businesses, and continua to make clay art and teach. He has conducted hundreds of workshops in the United States and Canada, and helped organize and participated in five clay symposiums in Eastern Europe.


(To be used only on wet clay)

* One part low-fire white casting slip.

* One part underglaze

* Half-part clear low-fire glaze

* Mark the outside of the container with what color it will be when fired. (The gray-colored casting slip tends to dominate the color.)


by David L. Gamble

1. Pass out the canvas-covered boards or bats to everyone.

2. Make a ball of newspaper about the size of a grapefruit to serve as a hump mold.

3. Cut generous pieces of the red low-tire clay off the block and pass to students.

4. Once they have their piece of clay, I give very strict directions:

* Make a mask, using no tools, just your fingers and hands.

* Do not put eyes or a mouth on your mask; at this point, you may only make eye sockets.

* You have 5 minutes to make this mask.

* Make your mask with as even a thickness that you can, about a half-inch thick.

* Do not use water! Push the clay together if you need to add something. (Most participants new to clay tend to add way too much water if water is around. This begins to break down the clay, which will not then hold its form.)

5. At 5 minutes I yell "STOP!" Everyone stops working (and complains).

6. I then ask them to pass their mask (on its board) to the person on their right.

7. I then announce they have 5 minutes to work on the mask in front of them. Don't forget ears and hair!

8. At the end of another 5 minutes, I again yell "STOP!" and ask them to pass the mask to the person to their right, once more. I announce they have 5 minutes to work on the mask in front of them. (This tends to break down inhibitions about working with clay, allowing them to be freer and looser in their creating.)

9. This time after 5 minutes, I yell "STOP!" and then ask them to pass their mask two people to the left, which returns the original masks back their creators, who may not recognize it.

10. Participants are then given 10 minutes to work on their masks.


At this point, I pick one of the masks and, with fettling knife, cut straight lines through the clay horizontally across the middle of the eyes the width of an eyeball. At the middle of where the mouth should be, I cut a horizontal line through the clay the width of the mouth.

Once the lines are cut, I turn the mask over and push out from behind in the middle of the cuts, making a space for each eyeball and opening the mouth. The mouth may need some shaping and the lips may need some smoothing depending on the thickness of the clay. After this is done, wash the red clay from your hands.

I then take white clay and roll two matching eyeballs the appropriate size for the mask, and fashion teeth with a wide gum line so they can be attached from behind. A long tongue can also be formed at this time. Insert the white eyeballs, one at a time, into the opening of the eye from behind, pushing them into place and smoothing/attaching them on the back side of the red-clay mask.

To finish the eyes, I use a round piece of plastic to define the iris (the top of a Sharpie[R] works well for this). The pupil can be carved out, or another small round circle made with a pen can be pressed into the clay.

The teeth are put in from behind and attached, making them as realistic or funny as you what. Tongues, cigars, pipes, etc. add to the character of the piece.

Don't forget to make holes, or add clay loops, on the back of the mask, so that a wire can be run across the back of it so it can hang on the wall.

I like to add color while the masks ate still wet; underglazes and vitreous engobes work perfectly for this. These are made mostly of clay and can be brushed right onto the moist clay surface. Don't fear: the underglazes and engobes will shrink right along with the clay as it dries without popping off. Underglaze can be used right out the container. Once it is applied, you can do sgraffito work on the surface, cutting through the colored underglaze down to the red clay surface (similar to scratch-art). It's best to allow the underglaze or engobe to set up a bit and stiffen before cutting through it. (See sidebar about mixing a vitreous engobe on page 15.)

When they are totally dry, the masks are bisque-fired to Cone 04. If desired, clear glaze can be brushed on the eyes, lips, teeth or tongue, and glaze-fired to cone 05. And, of course, attach wire to the back of the mask so it can hang on display.
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Author:Gamble, David L.
Publication:Arts & Activities
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2012
Previous Article:June K. McFee.
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