I am developing a new project called ‘Masked’. The theme is prompted by the Coronavirus and the fact that masks look likely to be part of our culture for the foreseeable future, but not directly connected to it for obvious reasons. Instead, my research and inspiration centres around masks that can transform identity and imbue power, which is clearly much more thrilling than PPE. Masks throughout history have played a crucial role in the development of what it means to be human because they permit the imaginative experience of what it’s like to become a different character, or to affirm an existing social or spiritual identity. Through the creation of a collection of sculptural costumes I want to manipulate identity, challenging the conventions of body image and camouflaging the wearer, creating a second skin that masks gender, race, class and ability.
Across time and culture masks have had many purposes and held varying spiritual significance. Many believed that masks gave them a direct connection with the supernatural and that as they were being made they increasingly acquired power in their own right. Masks were created to portray ancestors, animals and mythical heroes in the hope that the spirits would be pleased and bless their tribe with good tidings. In Mali the antelope is the symbol of agriculture and it’s mask is worn to encourage a good harvest. In China Wedding masks were used to bring good luck and ensure a lasting marriage. I’m considering giving each of my costumes a power or purpose other than decorative. My sketches so far involve manipulating head shape, and in line with African mask making tradition a wide, bulging forehead represents wisdom and a mask with a large chin represents power and strength. I’m enjoying this train of thought and imagining wearing my mask of wisdom around the house as I dish out advise to my kids. Furthermore there's a theory that the mask maker actually absorbs some of the power as the mask is created. I have ALWAYS longed for a super power.
Masks exist also as devices for disguise, playfulness and theatrics. Masks used in Chinese Opera are colour coded, so that the audience can immediately determine the personality traits of each character and actors in the theatres of Ancient Greece wore masks that cleverly contained a brass megaphone in the mouth to amplify their voice. In complete contrast a C17th Venetian mask called a moretta muta (pictured) was held in place by a button on the inside that the wearer (always women) would grip between her teeth rendering her mute. Unable to speak and with her face hidden under a plain black velvet mask, the wearer’s intention was to appear more beautiful and clearly more mysterious, however, she would also hilight her nipples by painting them red, so they could be seen beneath her blouse. The thinking behind the moretta muta was that the real, hidden treasure lay within, which I suppose was her inner beauty, but to be honest I’m slightly confused by the nipple painting. I am, however, particularly drawn to the idea that a mask accentuates our inner qualities and removes the opportunity for prejudice. Essentially, we are all equal behind a mask. In the Greek bacchanalia and the Venice carnivals, masks were worn to give anonymity, allowing their wearer to “cavort in merry revelry outside their rank or status”.
Oh to cavort in merry revelry again soon! Amongst friends and family. With or without a mask.
My creative mind is my happy place. I can block out the world when I have a plan up my sleeve and get completely lost in thinking and doing. I feel very lucky in my ability to lose myself in my creativity, and it comes as no surprise that many have currently found crafting and artistic pursuits beneficial to their mental health in lockdown. Has enforced solitude meant there is a greater opportunity to daydream, to let the mind meander towards creative thoughts and possibilities? Has boredom led us to express ourselves though creativity or is it quite the opposite? Crises and constraints can definitely boost creativity. I heard an amazing and equally terrifying story about the crew of the Apollo 13 who, risking death after oxygen tanks exploded on board, had to act quickly to create a filter system that would enable them to return safely to earth. They saved the day using a sock, the front page of their checklist manual and a roll of duct tape! Impressive, inventive and without a doubt creative. Do restrictions, crises or maybe even pandemics force us to think harder and produce better work? I definitely work best under pressure, but thankfully, so far, never near death kind of pressure.
My most creative spurts recently have come during online ‘Zoom’ workshops with the wonderfully talented and funny Ryan Dawson Laight. It’s an hour of total and utter mayhem, shared by a group of fellow creatives. Not all designers - there’s an actor and a potter amongst the merry crew. Ryan sets tasks around a theme to be done in anything from 3 minutes to 15 minutes maximum. Last weeks theme was ’Street Theatre Costume Character Design’, and I loved it. It got my creative juices flowing and the adrenalin pumping. We drew, we sculpted, we laughed a lot, and my final effort was this, who knows what of a construction, thrown together in minutes around the theme of “midnight, animal, cabaret”. Not stage worthy obviously but such a fun challenge in the time frame. I realise I have relished the madness of these workshops, the thrill of a deadline that is missing in my life without theatre. On the flip side my downtime outwith efforts to sustain my career, feed the family and the usual stuff, has been spent reconnecting with yoga, walking and crafting in front of Netflix. Patchwork has surprisingly become my therapy, and I am enjoying making space in my life for these activities. My conclusion is that life and creativity require both stimulation/pressures AND room to breathe in order to produce our best work. Yin and yang, a dualism and a balance that I hope I can achieve in my life when some kind of normality returns and in a way I never did before.
Thanks to a gift from a friend, I’ve discovered patchwork and I’m loving it. I have always considered it to be laborious and mind-numbingly technical, but it’s actually surprisingly straightforward. A craft you can accomplish while watching TV, historically done by women as a social pastime, and dating back as far as Egyptian times. I’m finding it quite therapeutic during my current lockdown life.
Essentially patchwork or “pieced work” involves sewing together pieces of fabric into a larger design, usually repeating patterns and geometric shapes. You can patchwork in a random fashion or follow a strict order to create a specific effect. There are names for all these effects like ‘Drunkard’s Path’ and ‘Tulip’, but I’m opting for a more rogue approach as I enjoy a voyage of discovery. The potential is as limitless as the combination of colours and shapes - it’s exciting stuff! I had imagined I would require incredible patience for patchwork, but like knitting, you can pick it up and put it down as and when, and watching it grow is just so satisfying.
Patchwork is the perfect environmentally friendly craft activity, as your fabric of choice could be a torn shirt or in my case, the scraps and off-cuts from costume making. The ideal fabric would be non-stretch and make sure to wash it first so there is no shrinkage once your project is complete. As well as the upcycled benefits of patchwork I love that quilters through the ages have used patchwork and quilting to memorialise the significant moments of our lives: the births, marriages, anniversaries and deaths of loved ones. I’m not quite at the quilt making stage yet, but now that I’ve mastered the technique via online tutorials (and I cannot stress enough how straight forward it is), I see no reason why I couldn’t progress to something more elaborate or large scale. The hexagons (pictured) are intended for a costume project and I’ve used white thread to hilight the stitch technique involved. If you need a kick start why not try the lovely wee kit I was gifted. It contains everything you need to get going and is available from firstname.lastname@example.org.