A 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.
- Science Magazine (July 6, 2001): Vol. 293 no. 5527 pp. 51-52. DOI: 10.1126/science.1062331. Artistic Creativity and the Brain: Zeki, Semir.
- Sivin, Carole, (1986). Maskmaking. Worcester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications, Inc.
- 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.
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