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Door demons and other dark flights of the mind.

"Midway, the journey of this life I was 'ware

That I had strayed into a dark forest,

And the right path appeared not anywhere. Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,

This wood, so harsh, dismal and wild, that fear

At thought of it strikes now into my heart. So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer." Canto I, The Inferno, Dante

In the Buddhist Sutras of the Sea of Triple Darkness Leading to the Vision of Buddha, the 180 divisions of Hades are described. These include eighteen frozen hells, eighteen middling hot hells, eighteen dark hells and other hells where the victims are on spiked wheels, crushed in fiery chariots, drenched with filthy things or soaked with boiling water.

These I read with relish, making a mental note to remark to my classes that Nag-Dev, the God of Snakes, was the same figure that was represented by Nag and Nagina in Kipling's Riki Tiki Tavi. This figure also appeared as a background god in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Then it was time for further preparation. I sat in front of the television screen, allowing He-Man and Skeletor, Trapjaw, the grotesques from the world of wrestling, Tranzor-Z, Voltran--Defender of the Universe, the Transformers and other good guys and demons to walk across the stage of my mind. Rule #1: Birds fly only in an open sky. Ideas come only when the mind is cleared of preconceptions. I scanned medieval book illustrations and books on cathedral sculpture, Tibetan guardian figures, African masks, Kabuki masks, and Oceanic gods and demons.

The title of the lesson was "Door Demons", but I added, "and Other Dark Flights of the Mind." I had only to turn to Gothic cathedral sculpture to realize that the dark side of the human mind is a rich source of fantastical imagery.

At last, like a cherry atop a dark sundae of demon-readiness, I watched the video The Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller, where the ancient transformation of man into a wolf is graphically chronicled. This video is an enjoyable and informative excursion into the world of special effects. I was now ready to teach a class on "masks which are not worn."

Gathering black and white construction paper, white drawing paper, markers, glue, scissors, etc., I rolled my cart into the sixth grade class with a real African mask from the Ivory Coast, a demonic image from Nepal, a Kabuki mask made of wood, two Oceanic face images from Yap. I also had an assortment of paper teeth, polystyrene horns and fangs, some robber bands to hold things on, and a headdress of bones, horns and paper skulls. With a Chinese mask and a snake from the aborigines of Taiwan, I said "nee-how-ma," or "good day" in broken Chinese.

The students knew this was no ordinary lesson. I asked for a volunteer to become a monster. Hands shot up. This was an opportunity not to be missed. With two polystyrene tusks in my mouth, I changed the student's face into a demon with paper teeth, a headdress and a necklace of rope. I kept the materials simple as the emotional concepts were complex. That is rule #2.

The instructions were simple: "We are going to make door demons to ward off evil spirits. They must be so terrible that any respectful bad ghost, other demon or spirit would flee on seeing its ghastly image. No blood--too easy; more than one eye--fine; more than one fang--fine; more than one anything--fine. Your door demon has to have human and animal features." Our word for the day was oxymoron, a descriptive term for things which should not go together but do.

My made-up witch doctor passed out the colored markers, paper, some suggestions and an array of polystyrene fangs and teeth to be used as the students saw fit in making things come from eyes, ears, eyebrows, hair, mouth, nostrils, etc. Each table had an object to use as a stimulant for demonic ideas, but none could be copied without making it more terrible than it was. There was an African mask table, with the students telling stories around an imaginary initiation campfire at night, a Nepal table, a Japanese temple table, a Taiwanese aborigine table, and an Oceanic table. The works of art came from my own collection and twenty-five years of collecting all over the world.

The success was measured by the quality of the works produced. It did not come from an ordered lesson plan--although there was extreme planning--nor from a management book for behavior control--although the stations were ordered so that there was little or no interruption from the process of idea generation. Success came from setting a mood and keeping a posture of wonder, magic and demonic play.

A similar lesson was planned for the first, second, third and fourth graders with basically the same objectives: making door demon masks and teaching something about kinetic and emotional responses to works of art. I varied the presentation with each class. The young minds wanted to suspend judgment and believe that door demons could keep away the fears that hide in the deepest parts of their minds.

At the end of the sixth grade class, we discussed the making of door demons. "How does this activity differ from making masks to wear?" "Why is the door so important in all cultures and is many times guarded?" "What did you learn from being able to use fangs and teeth coming out of eyes, ears, nose, and hair? "Why do aboriginal cultures use this technique to create their demons?" "Why does an individual's imagination fly when the subject is demons?"

A follow-up lesson focused on three-dimensional forms that challenge the mind. "How can we use negative space to show things which we think are positive?" "How can we add rational thought (the ordered processes of our minds) to the emotional and physical realms we have already explored?" Here, I limited the students to white paper cut-outs on black fields. The demons had now transformed into decorative elements.

Several teachers followed up these demonic lessons with writing assignments. After researching the writing on tombstones in old New England cemeteries, one class created epitaphs for tombstones.

For a time at the Burnell Campus School in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, demons surfaced to the higher realms of the mind: children's rich, vivid imaginations were fired by the demon fears in the deepest part of all of our minds. Best of all, it was done in fun; the joy of flights of the mind.

Rule #3: If you know where you are and where you are going, the middle is easy and enjoyable.

J. Kagle teaches art at the Burnell Campus School, Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Photos by Richard Green, Bridgewater State College Media Services,
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Title Annotation:studying door masks of different cultures
Author:Kagle, J.
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:The Harvesters, Pieter Bruegel.
Next Article:Art and history in perspective.

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