The Benefits of Mask Making in a Journey toward Wholeness

man wearing maskA baby first focuses on the faces of those around them. Hard-wired to recognize our caregivers, at a primal level, we all understand the human face communicates information. Understanding the messages others are sending us can even be essential to survival. Cover a face and the transformation can be mildly unnerving, terrifying, or even extremely funny. A face that is covered denies us access to the signals we are used to seeing and sends out new signals or messages for us to interpret.

A mask-making session can afford fertile ground in an expressive therapy setting for both client and therapist. Making a mask invites the creator to explore various aspects of his or her own persona. The activity can be revealing because it takes the mask maker out of the realm of words and employs imagination and nonverbal action.

Exploiting the Mind-Body Connection

One mask-making technique involves molding clay into facial features and then applying materials such as paper mache, celluclay, or various molding cloths over the top of the sculpted mask face. The tactile process of modeling clay with hands, fingers, and palms can provide a powerful connection to deep-rooted feelings through the tactile, nonverbal (somatic) experience of working physically with the clay. The body can hold all kinds of memories from the past, and by engaging in this nonverbal activity the imagination of the mask maker may find new ways to communicate hidden thoughts, feelings, and memories through the creation of meaningful symbols that are shaped into the clay as the mask evolves.

During the process, through verbal or nonverbal communication, the therapist may help the client to experience and consciously come to terms with these previously locked up and hidden memories. This can happen as the feelings or memories emerge during the mask-making session or sometimes in later sessions when the mask, made by the client, is used in other ways.

Finding Joy Through Creativity

Many memories and the feelings associated with them are difficult and painful, but it’s also true that the result may well be the reclamation of joyful creativity. When we are children, we play with abandon; it’s part of the learning process. The ability to playfully explore the world within as well as the environment that surrounds is often lost as we age into adulthood. It becomes prey to many cultural pressures and sometimes to misinterpreted parental reprimands.

A parent may react strongly to a child playfully exploring a shiny object such as a sharp knife. The child may then interpret the reprimand as being connected to their natural interest and creative exploration process and assume that this is a “wrong behavior.” A little bit of their creative energy then gets locked up with some repressed feelings and lost joyfulness. We all want to be loved and protected by our parents; when we are children, our survival depends on it.

Mask making and working with masks in a therapeutic situation can help unlock that playfulness and sense of creative adventure through the process of remembering moments, such as the one just described, and revisiting the feelings that accompany such memories.

Out of the Nowhere and into the Here

Besides being a therapeutic tool, mask making can be a simple pleasure on its own. Adults engaged in busy and demanding lives don’t often have or take time to engage in a hands-on creative process. By simply indulging in the mask-making process, the participant can reopen doors and creative pathways long ago forgotten. There’s an age-old nursery rhyme that goes:

Where did you come from, baby dear?

Out of the nowhere, and into the here.

Our creations are like our babies. The simple act of bringing an object, in this case a mask, “out of the nowhere and into the here” can be a liberating process in and of itself.

The Rich Tradition of Mask Making

For more than 12,000 years, human beings have been making and using masks. We find the earliest evidence of this on the walls of caves around the world. At the Trois-Frères (“three brothers”) site in France, a figure considered to be a male shaman is depicted on the wall of the cave, wearing a large, antlered stag’s head. The headpiece mask has the face of an owl superimposed over the facial area with wolf-like ears and a long goat’s beard.

Masks can capture a state of mind. They evoke, memorialize, reveal, and conceal all at the same time. Even the most simply constructed masks can powerfully transform the face. The inanimate mask comes to life when worn. It becomes charged with a life force from within the wearer. Shamans and healers around the globe today, as well as the shamans of the ancient world depicted on caves so long ago, all understand the magic of making and using masks.

We can heal and be healed through integration by using our innate gift of imagination and our ability to create. Masks are a powerful tool in the process of healing and the journey toward wholeness.

References:

  1. Science Magazine (July 6, 2001): Vol. 293 no. 5527 pp. 51-52. DOI: 10.1126/science.1062331. Artistic Creativity and the Brain: Zeki, Semir.
  2. Sivin, Carole, (1986). Maskmaking. Worcester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications, Inc.
  3. Quest Magazine (January – February 2004): Spirit and Art: and the Puzzles of Paradox. James, Van. Retrieved July 20, 2013 from: http://www.theosophical.org/publications/1238.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Robbie

    Robbie

    September 10th, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    So this is something totally new for me. I have heard of other forms of art as a creative outlet but not necessarily in this form.

  • Morgan p

    Morgan p

    September 11th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    the face and the eyes are always said to be the wimdows to the soul
    so it makes sense that you would do some thing creative like this in a therapeutic way to process all of your inner demons
    let out all of the old that haunts you and imagine what something would look like, what life would look like as renewed and positive again

  • Joanna

    Joanna

    September 28th, 2013 at 12:16 PM

    I had a therapist wear a mask during a session. It was very traumatic for me, leaving me with nightmares. How was this beneficial?

  • giuseppe

    giuseppe

    August 27th, 2015 at 1:28 PM

    Very well and inclusive article. As an expressive arts therapist I had created four mask in a personality in performance course that was integrant part of my certification and I can relate with many of the points made in this article.

  • Douglas

    Douglas

    August 27th, 2015 at 10:43 PM

    Giuseppe, that is great. I’m glad you found it helpful and that is resonates with your training.

  • giuseppe r

    giuseppe r

    August 28th, 2015 at 11:23 AM

    Hi Douglas. Of course since then I have allowed some of my clientele to explore their personalities further by making masks and most important bringing their masks to life (moving the imagination through performance and play-so to speak) and the results have been very inspiring for both clients and myself.

    I have found that clients that engage in “low skill, high sensitivity” processes (e.g. mask making) allow this spontaneous work with visual arts to reveal aspects of felt and lived experiences which are explored directly in the here and now and through imaginative engagement or “Movement Of Imagination”: This aspect deepens and broadens understanding and application of Expressive Arts Therapy theory and practice with a concentration on movement of imagination based expressions.

    I as expressive arts therapist (trained to work with metaphors and to move images between modalities develop skills to integrate movement of imagination and other creative and expressive artistic expressions) focus with Movement of Imagination in the possibility for the client to think or image new things, for example new solutions. Inter-modal and phenomenological perspectives are integrated, such as visual work and narrative writing or drama and/or story telling or told in performance, in the mask making or mask enactment or mask story telling or others creative and expressive processes allowing for Movement Of Imagination that engender Expression, Imagination, Active participation and Mind-body connection.

    Now this are just my personal impressions nonetheless the feedbacks that I have received from clients are that through the process of Mask Making they are benefitted and feel empowered as inform and help them in their “Journey toward Wholeness”. Thanks Everyone.

  • Pavel

    Pavel

    February 14th, 2018 at 9:38 AM

    Hi Douglas,
    this is a very concise account of all the processes taking place when making (and using) masks. I come more from a performing arts background but I have been making and using masks in other settings as well – mainly for self-discovery and self-development. Mask is such a great tool and helps us learn a great deal about ourselves and about the archetypes that are part of our human constitution.
    Thanks a lot this wonderful account of mask making/using experience.
    Pavel

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