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Masks: interpretations and variations.

There they were. I knew I would have to face them again. Still hanging in the window after a long, lonely summer, they greeted me. Still unfinished, looking ghostlike in their present white, undercoated state, and faceless except for the most basic details, they almost spoke to me when I unlocked the artroom door for the start of a new school year. Overpowering in size, they could not be ignored. They demanded a response. I couldn't get the image out of my mind. These unfinished mask sculptures, started too late in the past school year, had been left unfinished, their great potential demanding some future action. Here we were again, face to face, the future already here.

I knew that the masks had a tremendously successful beginning and consisted of too much time, labor and effort to be forgotten, or worse yet, discarded. I also knew that I would have to make a decision about their future as the students who began their creation would not be returning. How would they ever become works of art?

Interpretation is an aspect of art that makes it a unique subject. The ability to move from one concept to another or one image to another is one that makes the artist unique. The smallest variation from the norm or the expected may render the most startling results.

Interpretation could take the form of a simple variation or deviation. Even the strongest love of something can become boring, overdone or tiring if not for variation. Variation seems to be in constant play in the artroom. Every student creates his own variation within the assignment, and every group creates a variation due to any number of reasons.

Masks have always been one of my favorite subject matters. In Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History has a complete and extensive collection of masks from countries worldwide. Walking these galleries, viewing these faces from far away places, gives one the feeling of being in another world at another time. One cannot help but be intrigued not only by the beauty of the masks but with the people who made them and the reasons for their existence. What kind of ceremony necessitated their creation? Why are some fearsome, and others gay? Who wore these masks? How were they made? How did the maker learn his trade?

Field trips to the museum always included an assignment centered around the mask display, even if a related activity was not planned for the immediate future. Any assignment that did result from the mask study ended up looking as if it were stolen from the exhibit, not because it was copied, but rather because it was constructed of such similar colors and materials.

Whenever I think of masks, I automatically think "primitive." Faces with sea shell eyes, earth skin tones, and natural hair filled my mind. This image has taken a back seat to my new thoughts of masks after a recent trip to New Orleans. I now think in terms of brightly colored, heavily feathered, glittered images. Fanciful replaces fearful and glitz replaces gloom. Masks were everywhere during Mardi Gras and each was more elaborate and elegant than the last. This was an interpretation I had never considered. Immediately the "wheels began turning" and plans for new concept masks flooded my mind. Of course, this meant the introduction of materials never before allowed in the artroom: fluorescent paint, glitter, sequins, feathers, and other craft items of decoration.

The year's beginning art students would complete the unfinished mask sculptures. I raffled them off to the new artists by random drawing, allowing the students to pick a mask as their names were picked out of the hat. Students were required to add or alter at least one feature on the existing mask, based on ideas from their own research drawings. The students experienced papier-mache and sculpture techniques and developed a stronger bond with the piece. Their major contribution would be in the surface decoration.

These very large masks, up to three feet across, had been constructed of papier-mache and cardboard. Their designs originated from combinations of features from sketches made of actual and photographic reproductions of tribal masks. The main (head) portion of the mask had been made by covering a large party balloon with fifteen to twenty layers of papier-mache. Students had worked in pairs, one holding the balloon and the other applying the strips of paper. When the form had completely dried, it had been cut in half with a hand saw to provide each student with a three-dimensional hollow form to begin construction. All projecting parts were added with cardboard and attached with papier-mache.

These mask forms were now once again primed with latex house paint. Students developed new surface designs. Once students decided upon a basic division of shape, they sketched it onto the mask as the main pattern for the decorations to follow. The fluorescent colors not only added lively interest to the masks, but to the entire artroom. This was the beginning of something fantastic. We could not get enough glitter and glitz. New materials were added each day and it seemed, in this instance, "more was better." The masks began to sparkle like jewels.

Although born from traditional primitive masks, these sculptures grew to become spectacular eye-catching focal points of any display or room into which they were placed. A simple variation of a theme turned into an extravaganza. I am hooked. I have always realized that experimentation was the key to a lively and exciting program, but now I also realize that I must remove my own blinders and remain receptive to all new ideas and materials. These materials have already found a place in several other regular assignments and I am certain will become regulars themselves.

Robert Basso teaches art at Marie Sklodowska Curie High School, Chicago, Illinois.
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Author:Basso, Robert
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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