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Somewhere in the recesses of my mind lurks a distant memory of a quote from Sophocles,

"Every man shows you a Mask, no human eye can bear reality ..."

The quote inspired the following lesson that focused on self-identity, the idea of putting one's best face forward, or the wearing of an invisible mask so as not to reveal your true feelings.

Identity is something middle school students are really grappling with. Image is everything. I think the whole mystique of image and identity is part of the reason our students are so excited and vigilant for the unit on maskmaking in art class. I teach this as a unit because it really piques the student's interests and can be used to teach and model social issues such as tolerance.

At the beginning, before any sketching or project planning, we embarked on research and data gathering together. We took a look at the history of maskmaking across the globe and through many cultures. Through videos, books, articles, slides, and transparencies we compared and contrasted the varied purposes, customs, ceremonies, and rituals associated with masks.

The students were so amazed at the colorful details of the masks, ranging from the beautiful to the somewhat scary or shocking, and everything else in-between. It was a revelation for many of them to find out that rock singers did not invent or initiate brightly colored hair, blue skin, and bizarre facial markings and tattoos!

We divided the task of researching background information, folklore, and fascinating facts about cultural masks. Each student in the room took a place on the globe (teacher too) to cover a cultural group somewhere on a historical time-line. We took a walk through history, all the way up to the present day where special effects artists create elaborate props and facial disguises for current film production, amusement parks, videos, and museums. What a contrast to move from the period of the Ancients to present day technology. The connections are truly eerie!

To cover the elements and principles of design, I incorporated mini-lessons about color theory, symmetry, painting, and texturing techniques as we went along. The skit, providing function to their art piece, gave the students a focus for creative writing. This proved to be a fantastic closure to an energy-packed frenzy of art activity.

A Wide Range of Inspiration

Some of the original creations by the students incorporated design techniques you would see on a Hopi Kachina, a Bolivian devil or diabolo mask, a striped Bateke mask from Africa, or a mardi-gras mask. Some students did copies of authentic masks, but most chose to do original creations that merged some of their favorite properties and details from several different masks.

The Egyptian death mask idea was popular, done on the students' own faces using plaster gauze. Many students enjoyed making self-portrait masks, using famous people in history as subject matter. Materials used for the base or form of the mask shape ranged from clay (both earthen and polymer), plaster over wig heads or the actual artists' faces, foam, cardboard, and papier-mache.

Ideas for Materials

Foam was popular and interesting to use and there are many varieties. Insulating foam is stiff and can be sawed with a hacksaw blade, coping saw, or a razor knife. (Safety Note: Unless an adult is cutting these materials, make sure students know how to use these tools and have supervision.) Edges can be rasped, shaped, and sanded. Foam can be purchased in building supply centers or hardware stores, and comes in various textures and thicknesses. This stiff foam makes great mounting surfaces and add-ons, such as crowns, horns, and headpieces. Soft foam can be purchased in places where upholstery products are sold or recycled from packing supplies. It can be painted or covered with fabric for a jester's hat or dragon spikes.

We had fun with glass nuggets--the kind florists use in a glass dish or vase. These come in all colors and give a mysterious, realistic look to the eyes, the same effect the ancient Egyptians were after in their life-like human sculptures. We discovered you could set the glass nuggets into place with white polymer clay then bake them right into the plaster masks. Kids love it!

Becoming an Artist

The greatest thing I noticed is the phenomenon of the student artist as risk-taker. Each year, as a new group of students view slides of the former students' work and experience the collection of artifacts borrowed from the museum, they become more adventurous with experimenting. I witness the students fearing mistakes less.

This willingness to take a chance is what every artist needs. Observing this metamorphosis in my students has helped me build a better teaching style. The students are more eager to make their own aesthetic decisions and hold the questions and pleas for guidance in reference to technique. Isn't this one of our main goals--to teach the our students to be thinkers and problem-solvers?

Unmasking Identity

At the end of the unit, the students used a scoring rubric for self-assessment and write an essay or passage on the back of the evaluation that describes their mask and the process of creating it. Some students chose to write a poem or creative story using the mask as a catalyst for creative writing.

They learned about identity, but they also revealed so much more in this art class than in any of their other classes or any other venue. Art is a window to who we are; a project like maskmaking can bring the true person into view. This has compelling implications for success with all types of students.


Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas.


EVALUATION CODE: 10 = Excellent 9 = Good Work 8 = Satisfactory 7 = Improvement needed 6 = Poor 5 = Incomplete

 1. Four thumbnail sketches completed --
 2. One final drawing of mask idea in color --
 3. Drawings and sketches show all details
 for special effects --
 4. Creativity and originality of ideas and details
 5. Technical skill with plaster or papier-mache,
 smooth or texture --
 6. Construction of mask is neat and sturdy --
 7. Daily progress, time used wisely, on task --
 8. All gluing, cutting processes neat and safe --
 9. Painting and finishing touches show good technique --
10. Student is responsible and cooperative with --
 class participation and daily clean-up --



A+ = 100
C+ = 83

A = 97-99
C = 79-82

A- = 93-96
C- = 74-78

B+ = 92-
D+ = 73

B = 88-91
D = 68-72

B- = 84-87
D- = 63-67

* See teacher for extra essay question!


Frank, Vivien and Jaffe, Deborah. Masks to Make and Decorate. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996.

Wolfe, George. 3-D Wizardry. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, 1995.

Innes, Miranda. Papier-Mache. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1995.

Hume, Helen D. Art History and Appreciation Activities Kit. West Nyack, NY: The Center for Applied Research in Education, 1992.

Louise Harvilla is an teacher at Highlands Middle School in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Harvilla, Louise
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 1, 2000
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