Monday, June 21, 2010

Masks - a How To Guide

When I was a kid I strove to have the most incredible costumes I possibly could. I didn't just want my costume to look fantastic, it also needed to be unique. Something no one else had done or a twist on an old standard. For example, I once went as a white cat for Hallowe'en, because who wants to be a boring black cat?

I also believed in making it myself. Both my brother and I had access to a wonderful array of crafty items as our dad had a wood shop and our mum had an all-purpose crafting area. We also always seemed to have a lot of large cardboard boxes, chicken wire and other useful items that could be converted into things like the body of a dinosaur or the frame for a papier mache Gollum mask.

Often times our mum was roped into helping us, employed as the seamstress for the elaborate robe of a classic Fairytale Witch or the marvellous dress of a beheaded Queen. I was acutely aware, however, that my mum didn't always enjoy these assignments and part of me longed to say I'd made an entire costume myself, from beginning to end.

I was in High School when I began using the idea of recycled costumes. I had begun to notice that you could get almost anything you desired from the abundant thrift stores on my route home each day. I would get an idea in my head, a clear vision of the costume, and it was merely a case of hunting down that perfect shirt and pant combo to make it come alive.

I also discovered the joy of plaster cast bandages whilst in high school. I attended the wonderfully quirky Alternative High School, where the art teachers gave us great freedom with our assignments. When it came to making masks we were told to do any mask we liked, anything at all. At the time my family was preparing for our first ever Mardi Gras House Party. I intended to produce a costume like none I'd ever done before. It would triumph my Jack Skellington, overshoot The Night and outshine my dragons. I would be a sleak silver Mardi Gras Cat, starting with the mask.

I've learned a lot since that first step into using the medium of plaster. The first important thing I larned was don't make the entire mask on your face in one go. Take a cast first and let it dry, then build it up afterwards, when you've removed. Luckily I did go to such a quirky school that my other teachers didn't find it unusual for me to wander into class with a drying cat mask plastered on my face.

I also learned that, while I do love making costumes, my ability to do them so well for myself is not easily transferred to the public. When I was twenty-one I made an attempt at selling my artwork in a community craft store on a main road in Calgary. Primarily I had clay dragons and sculpey magnets on display, but I put a few masks out just in case. A woman contacted me about having one done and at first it seemed a thrilling opportunity. At that time I wasn't nearly so confident in selling myself, nor did I realise that the clientele I had was my choice and I shouldn't work for anyone I didn't want to.

The woman was abrupt and rigid. She wanted a mask but it had to be done quickly and if it wasn't under a certain price she wasn't interested. Of course now I know better. I know to say that I am the artist and if you choose to commission me for my work, whilst I will listen to your requests, the method I use is based on my own expertise. It is this expertise and this time that you are paying for and (To borrow and paraphrase) contrary to popular belief, artists do like to eat.

I did do the mask for her but because she 'didn't want that gunk' on her face for longer than ten minutes it was a hurried business and one that left me feeling more stress than joy or creative pleasure. I chose to let the experience put me off and determined that I couldn't make masks for other people, despite how much I love the process of sculpting and then painting thm. I would occasionally do them for a friend or family member, but the idea of selling them seemed to be struck from my list. I would forever limit my costuming to my own self, my own love of creating a character in my imagination and then bringing it to life through plaster, paint, glue and faux fur.

I produced a few more fabulous creatures since that first cat, including the personification of my wolfie self-portrait, and recently I managed to have some fabulous photographs taken of them.

Then, two week ago, in a fit of creative frustration, I ordered some rolls of plaster cast. They arrived in the post the following week and this Saturday I found my first victim - uh, customer.

If I've learned anything it's that you can change your mind. You can decide just as easily that you aren't ever going to make masks for other people as you can decide that one experience needn't shape or determine all your future actions. When I really think about it, and I really look at all the creative talents I have, I know what makes me happy and what I wish I did more often.

More to come...

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