The Mask Maker's Magic

Note:  This article, along with color photos, can be seen at the USITT website.  Then go to:  Theatre Design & Technology website and link to Winter 2005 (vol. 41, no. 1). 
Other articles by Deborah Bell on masks and mask makers can be seen at the USITT website.  Then go to:  Theatre Design & Technology website and link to Spring 2006 (vol. 42, no. 2), Masks of Transformation and Winter 2002 (vol. 38, no. 1) Iowa's Extraordinary International Mask Conference.
The Mask Maker’s Magic


Masks have always fascinated us. Consider the masks showcased in the popular

Broadway productions The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Two shows that opened

on Broadway late in 2004, Gem of the Ocean and Pacific Overtures make significant use

of masks. Recent film and television versions of Spiderman, Bat Man, Planet of the

Apes, and Star Trek all champion the art of masked performance. Depending on how one

defines the mask, even rock performers such as Kiss, Elton John, and Cher have used

masked performance effects. Any good bookstore offers a book or two on the topic of


Yet little information exists about the mask makers themselves. How odd since the

theatre world devotes substantial attention toward directors, designers, playwrights, and

performers. Somehow the mask maker remains invisible, or at least anonymous, partly

because the masked performer takes precedent, and possibly because we see

proportionately fewer masked performances on stage.

Yet the quality of the “traditional” masked performance invariably demands the

impressive skills and magic of one individual, the mask maker. While musicians, a

lighting designer, and set designer occasionally assist, the “traditional” mask maker often

serves as the masked performer as well as his/her own playwright, choreographer,

director, and costume designer, unlike so much of today’s commercial theatre where

masked performance results from the efforts of a variety of specialized artists and


I use the term “traditional” to help distinguish between the popular and commercial

masked effects of film and Broadway and the masked performance work of those

artists/artisans worldwide who have kept the ancient traditions of mask work alive with

the efforts of single masked performers or small groups of masked performers in

intimately staged or community-staged presentations/rituals. These traditional masked

presentations have largely influenced at least some of today’s popular masked effects

(those directed toward mass audience appeal). For instance, Julie Taymor spent her

earlier years observing and participating in community masked performances in Bali,

India, and Sri Lanka as well as studying at L’Ecole de Mime Jacques LeCoq in Paris.1

I have yet to visit mask makers in Africa, India, China, South America, and Trinidad but

during the past two years, I have visited and interviewed some notable traditional mask

makers from Korea, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Bali, Italy, Sweden, and the east and west

coasts of the United States. I’ve learned more about the special contributions these

individuals and have seen their masks in performance and clearly masked performance,

like music, has the ability to transcend language. I’ve also seen many of these mask

makers at work in their studios.

Some of the mask makers I have visited make classical masks for contemporary

performances and ritual presentations while others are avant-garde performance artists

with a decidedly more experimental dimension to their work. Those mask makers who

concentrate on creating time-honored classical masks such as the Balinese masks used in

Topeng dance, Japanese Noh masks, Italian commedia-styled character masks found in

Italy (or their Korean Hahoe counterparts) concentrate much of their efforts on perfecting

the technical qualities of their masks, while others explore new characters and

performance styles and concentrate their efforts more on the personally expressive

qualities of masks.

Of course every successful mask maker combines elements of both artistry and

craftsmanship. Even when the mask maker replicates a traditional mask, he/she uses a

personal carving or sculpting technique that makes each mask an original in its unique

hand craftsmanship. A number of mask makers I interviewed commented on how their

own technical expertise combined with the qualities of the actual wood, clay, or leather

directly influenced their vision for the mask. Others admitted eliminating their masks

after the rehearsal process commenced in order to create ones better suited for the

performance project at hand. Even after creating a seemingly highly expressive mask, a

performer cannot always make it appear effectively on stage. Regardless of the technical

and expressive virtuosity at work, all of these individuals explore ways to create the most

evocative masks for dynamic masked performances.

In this context, mask makers are not unlike performers and playwrights who often

describe their artistic processes in terms of combining art and craft. They speak about the

craft and technique of writing and performing even as they try to identify the unique

artistic element of their work. The spirit of artistry varies for the performer with each

new performance in the same way that the quality or spirit of artistry varies for the mask

maker with the creation of each new mask.

Dario Fo, Italian playwright, comic performer, director, designer, and Nobel Prize for

Literature laureate describes this blurring of technique and art within his own creative

process. He says, “Manual labor is important and I like to construct and invent along

with the technicians. I spend time with them, talk with them, I want to know everything

about the lights, about the various possibilities of actual stage construction. I’m not

interested in a single solution, an act of repetition. This is true in general of my artistic

activity. I’m always ready to change. I’ve also made many mistakes because I’ve tried

to break out of a fixed pattern. A performance can’t be repeated forever if it functions

well. I prefer to throw myself into the search for renewed expression as an artisan, not as

a demigod.”2

A mask maker can never make the same mask twice, nor can a masked performer present

the same performance twice. Several mask makers I interviewed admitted that initially

they had tried to make a traditional mask, whether it was a new version or an original

work never before attempted.

I began to examine the mask makers’ creative processes by asking each of them how

he/she focuses, reflects, or meditates when first beginning a mask project. I have

included highlights of their responses with photographs of their masks. Many of the

photographs show the mask maker in his studio or performing.

Mask Makers as Commercial Artists and Mask Makers as Collectors

Frequently traditional mask makers sell copies of their work to tourists to supplement

their income. The acquisitive tourist can find masks at markets worldwide. Koukeri

masks (mummer masks) can be found in Eastern European villages, especially during the

mummer celebrations. Mexican Day of the Dead devils and saints masks in Mexico and

parts of California; Korean and Japanese masks at traditional sites of ritual performance;

carnival masks for sale during the boisterous celebrations of New Orleans, Trinidad,

Cuba, Brazil, and Venice indicate a thriving trade for the “tourist” mask. These

commercial masks usually emphasize the mask maker’s imaginative use of artifice rather

than defining unique portraits/personalities that can function in a successful performance

for a specific situation and performer. Of course masks for commercial purpose can

possess their own integrity, although the quality of craftsmanship and expressiveness

usually depends on how much the buyer will pay.

At least half of the twenty mask makers I interviewed supplement their income

considerably by selling replicas or versions of their work to tourists or to universities

teaching masked performance techniques.

Korean master Kim Dong-Pyo has an exceptional reputation as a mask maker of

authentically-based hand-carved Hahoe masks for which people worldwide pay dearly

and wait many months to acquire. The Hahoe masks evoke humorous servant/master

archetypal characters, similar in spirit to the Italian commedia dell’arte characters.

His masks (along with those of several other mask makers I interviewed) are found in a

number of museums. Queen Elizabeth requested a viewing of Kim’s Hahoe masked

performance of Pune (the flirtatious widow) during her 1999 tour of South Korea.

Mr. Kim experienced such demand for his “tourist” Hahoe masks that he built a factory

to manufacture large quantities for tourists visiting the Andong region. He found this

endeavor so profitable that he proceeded to purchase a notable collection of Korean

masks. He eventually built a major Korean mask museum next to his studio where he

beautifully exhibits his extensive collection. He is currently planning an international

mask museum where he will exhibit an impressive range of masks he has acquired during

his world travels.

Likewise, Italian mask maker Donato Sartori has announced plans for his international

mask museum near his studio in Padua. He and his father/mentor, Amleto Sartori, have

enjoyed major recognition as mask makers, having created inspirational masks for such

notable performance artists as Eduardo de Felippo, Georgio Strehler, LeCoq, and Dario

Fo. For decades international theatre companies have commissioned his work, while

students abroad come annually during the summer to study his mask-making techniques.

Other mask makers I interviewed who regularly sell exceptional “tourist/educational”

masks on demand include Canadian Xstine Cook, Americans Bruce Marrs and Newman,

Balinese Anom and Dawig, Northwest Canadian-Indian Victor Reece, and Mexican Juan

Horta. I have provided e-mail addresses for each of these artists at the end of this article.

How Masks Function

How do masks actually function? I think this question worth exploring before identifying

general considerations confronted by mask makers in beginning their creative process.

Masks have existed at least since the ancient beginnings of mythology. The elemental

echoes of our subconscious desires and fears found in masks and mythic stories serve as

the basis of all art. Masks, like myths, create the illusion of metaphor/imagery as a

fundamental way of expressing ultimate mysteries about the human condition.

Cave paintings spanning far back into the Paleolithic era depict the first “recorded”

masks—animal heads probably worn by hunters. Swedish mask maker Torbjorn Alstrom

has researched Paleolithic masks in cave paintings in Sweden and the Swedish

government has commissioned him to experiment with a wide range of materials such as

fish skin, furs, bark, and leather which he thinks may have been used by the earliest mask

makers in his country. Consequently he has incorporated a variety of skins as well as

leather in his mask work, including fish and bird skins, bark, and furs. His Pulcinella

mask utilizes fish skin for an especially primitive textured effect.

Joseph Campbell states that myths (which he refers to as the primal “masks” of god)

initially developed as primitive man confronted his impending death. Campbell says that

the early mythic stories attempted to understand the related consequences of death,

particularly humanity’s yearnings to maintain some sort of spiritual connection with the

dead. Mythic stories also assisted humanity with its need to cope with the concept of its

conflicted duty to kill in order to live.3 The awareness and fear of death demanded some

sort of spiritual/eternal level of reality to transcend the limitations of life on earth.

Remnants of weapons, special clothing, and jewelry have been found in burial caves

dating back to Neanderthal man, who placed the regalia alongside the dead person to

serve him in the spirit/afterlife world of the dead.4 Campbell argues that a similar

spiritual identification occurs when the hunter somehow possessed the animal’s eternal

spirit while wearing the animal head during the hunt or in preparation for the hunt.5

No one really knows whether the Paleolithic “literal” masks of animal spirits came before

or after the earliest mythic stories of the gods in the spiritual realm—the storytelling of

Campbell’s detailed life-long comparative study. But at some point masks helped to

identify the earliest mythic gods as well as animal spirits. Indeed some of the animal

spirits identified were treated as gods. Masks ushered in some of the earliest known

ancient artistic renderings. The successful mask and mythic story, utilizing exaggerated

physical illusion and metaphor, had the power to become “more real than real” on a

spiritual, eternal level.

Consider how a totem mask resembles a real tiger. It renders a spiritual/eternal idea of

the tiger, not an actual tiger. And, depending on how the mask maker focuses on emotive

qualities of the tiger—its ferociousness, its feminine feline qualities, its

authoritativeness—the mask will reveal various levels of the tiger’s spiritual/eternal

reality. The spiritual reality of the mask comes from the frozen yet vitally expressive

state of the mask. Peter Brook succinctly describes this concept when he talks about the

traditional mask as a portrait of a man without a mask—a soul portrait—the ultimate

metaphysical (spiritual) quality of the mask.6

Fundamental Considerations for Mask Makers

Most traditional mask makers still typically consider (either consciously or

subconsciously) metaphorical aspects of myth, the mask’s earliest sister art form, as a

way of evoking the spirit of the mask. Almost all of the mask makers I interviewed

incorporate mythic stories and characters related to their own cultures. These stories

invariably balance such dualities as good and evil, power and vulnerability, love and hate,

the old and the young. The mythic stories of any culture present a struggle to understand

our basic fears and desires as they relate to these dualities.

While the myths used by the mask makers I interviewed usually come from legendary

stories such as those found in the Mahabharata, Mexican pastoral celebrations, Japanese

Noh dramas, Greek dramas, or even the classic Italian Roman/Renaissance commediastyled

skits, some of the mask makers I talked with take exception to this general format

by also exploring contemporary situations with contemporary characters. For instance,

Balinese mask maker I Bagus Anom and Mexican mask maker Juan Horta take great

delight in spoofing tourists with their masked versions of tourists that project blank gazes.

These tourist masks are now sometimes blended with legendary characters in the stories

of local comic masked performances. American mask maker BruceMarrs, in addition to

his delightful versions of commedia characters looking like today’s drinking buddies and

misfits, also creates original masks for Dell’Arte International’s contemporary satires,

which take aim at current political and economic situations. American mask maker

Newman has occasionally created gigantic versions of rock stars such as Elvis Presley

and Jimmy Hendrix and has actively participated in the annual Burning Man celebrations

in Nevada. Swedish mask maker Torbjorn Alstrom rarely works with mythic stories,

preferring to create contemporary characters in contemporary situations. He says,

“Somehow I believe that if my mask work really succeeds, you will not see the myth

behind it. You will perhaps feel something familiar. I believe that the mask creates an

atmosphere of myth around the performance. In this way, myth will always be present,

modern or old.”

Even if the use of myth is not totally evident in the mask maker’s work, he/she inevitably

explores archetypal qualities such as those seen in mythic characters. These archetypal

character qualities most often show up in the forms of demons/villains, heroes, gods, and

protectors such as animal totems but also in the form of Everyman figures as well. They

can range from heroic figures on a major quest to flippant slaves/servants outwitting their

masters, or nonchalant gods conquered by trickster figures who force the gods to accept a

truthful idea. We see masked characters as archetypal figures found in historical mythic

dramas or in contemporary productions because they have the power to resonate at

eternal, universal levels. Torbjorn Alstrom shows a contemporary version of this

universality when he presents his commedia-esque Pulcinella character as an Everyman

figure (not specifically as a Renaissance version of Pulcinella) who depicts the potential

malaise for anyone regardless of time or place. Masks seem particularly effective for

presenting archetypal characters in a performance, perhaps because of their obviously

exaggerated qualities. Bruce Marr’s “Stupino” mask, Kyoun Iwasaki’s “despairing

woman mask,” and Joyce Radtke’s spiritual guide masks depict timeless characters and

transcend cultural influence.

Whatever his cultural background, the mask maker recognizes the value of incorporating

masked performance with music, dance, and theatrical performances that emerge from

the rhythmic dramatic states of tension found in storytelling. Mask makers (unless

making masks for tourists) rarely intend for masks to hang on walls. They create masks

to be part of a more elaborate artistic presentation and purpose. The mask brings life to

the wearer and wearer brings life to the mask. The mask maker must create a mask that

is relatively easy to wear: one that allows for adequate visibility and that also helps to

accentuate the rhythmic gestures of the performer.

An especially important consideration for the mask maker lies in determining the style of

the mask. Of course the mask maker’s style invariably comes directly from his/her

cultural images and icons. The mask maker cannot consciously or subconsciously escape

the assimilated range of influential visual images within his/her culture.

Does this subliminal collection of images necessarily benefit the artistry of the mask

maker? While there are no easy answers to that question, all of the mask makers I

interviewed obviously enjoy learning about the work of other mask makers beyond their

own cultural boundaries. Most of them already had knowledge of the work of the other

mask makers I was interviewing. Donato Sartori has visited I Bagus Anom’s studio and

other mask makers worldwide. Torbjorn Alstrom and Newman took Donato Sartori’s

mask workshop in their earlier years. Juan Horta admits his profound interest in African

masks. I Bagus Anom has experimented with Japanese mask effects in his Balinese

work, incorporating black teeth and other Japanese facial characteristics. Dong-Pyo Kim

has traveled extensively to collect masks from other countries. I Made Suryasa studied at

UCLA and has an American wife; consequently he has an abiding awareness of Western

masked performances. Juan Horta, Victor Reece, Donvieve, Xstine Cook, and Torbjorn

Alstrom have offered mask-making workshops abroad. Nevertheless, even though the

mask makers I interviewed had impressive knowledge about the international trends of

mask making, they each tended to present work that strongly reflects the aesthetic of their

own culture.

A great deal of rich and varied visual imagery from the internet and cinema has the

potential to significantly influence even the most provincial mask makers. All of the

mask makers I interviewed, even those living in rural areas, had access to the internet if

not immediate access to new movies. While this information highway might threaten to

dilute the unique qualities of each mask maker’s style as well as his/her distinctive

cultural aesthetic, none of the mask makers I interviewed seemed to be drastically

changing the style of his/her masks as a result of such international internet influence. I

found this surprising, since one would assume that only the exceptional mask maker

could escape the influence of the sea of images continually pervading our current

internet-based shrinking world. Probably they have kept their autonomy partly due to

the fact that one cannot easily observe actual masked performances on the internet.

Without seeing the mask in performance, much of the mask’s power is lost. Therefore

the mask makers I interviewed tend to stay within the realm of their own cultural


Another stylistic consideration involves the decorative aspects of the mask. To some

extent the distance between the masked performer and its audience determines the level

of decoration. For example, costume historian James Laver points out that the ancient

Greek mask makers, whose masks were seen from great distances, believed that their

primary goal was to amplify the characters literally and figuratively.7 Consequently the

ancient bold Greek masks lacked intricate detail. (Alstrom has experimented with types

of carved wood to create contemporary versions of ancient Greek masks. The Drama

Review has published his findings entitled The Voice in the Mask in the summer 2004


The masked medieval performer, unlike the Greek masked performer, performed

relatively close to the street audiences. Consequently he required more elaborate artifice,

often including highly detailed iconic decoration such as heavily textured “evil goat/ram

horns” for the devil or intricately feathered bird imagery for the angels as well as dove

imagery signifying the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, distance has not always been the primary issue in selecting decorative

touches of the mask. Tseelon in his introduction to Masquerade and Identities describes

how mask makers have changed their goals regarding style throughout history citing

Napier’s examples of medieval performances as “antithetical to true identity. From

medieval times onwards, the mask acquired evil and sinister connotations and (contrary

to the ancient Greek mask) it has come to connote disengenuity, artifice, and pretence in

contrast to original identity, which connotes truth and authenticity.”8

The mask makers I interviewed all create masks that range from highly decorative to very

bold, depending on each mask’s function. Of course one of the reasons for the success of

these mask makers might have to do with their ability to astutely and sensitively assess

just how much style and decoration evokes the appropriate expressive effect. They each

strike just the right level of exaggeration, keeping in mind the type of performance where

the mask will appear. Exaggerated stylistic and decorative elements can overpower the

mask’s characterization and message. The mask can become too abstract and detract

from the mask’s vitality in the same way that a dancer’s overly complicated and abstract

gestures can diminish the audience’s attention.


All relevant “metaphorical mythic storytelling” involves a certain sense of the sacred as

the participants allow themselves to be “spiritually” transported from one level of

physical reality to a more profound, eternal reality. This magic happens not only in

masked performance but in any effective storytelling, whether around the campfire, on

film, in the reading of a poem, or as a dance, a piece of music, or a play on stage when

the image of the metaphor or event becomes “more real than real” in an imaginative way.

Joseph Campbell reminds us that the image of myth (as well as the image of the mask) is

never a direct presentation of the total mystery of human issues and only functions as “an

attitude, the reflex of a stance, a life pose, a way of playing the game. When the rules or

forms of such play are abandoned, the mythology dissolves—and with mythology, life.”9

The most successful masks worn in a performance or within a community rite of passage

evoke this idea of the sacred by evoking a spiritual, eternal idea of the human condition.

Tseelon quotes a similar, albeit more profound point made by Sorrell, who states that

“…the mask contains the magic of illusion without which man is unable to live.”

However, in this case, Sorrell describes the mask (i.e., the illusionary qualities of all art)

as “an imaginary shield that protects us against reality, a symbol of escape into a makebelieve

reality (wherein) the persona is the mask which protects us not only against the

other people behind their masks, but also against our own real self.” Tseelson suggests

that “the mask maker and the audience member unite in this need as the audience

member bears witness to the mask maker’s (artist’s) message.”10

The perspectives of Campbell, Sorrell, and Tseelson all underscore the essential premise

that the artful guise (mask) of mythic illusion enables us to maintain the idea of the

eternal over the temporary—that is, the spirit of life over death.

Perhaps contemporary commercial masks do not typically claim the same appeal they

still claim in Bali, where both Balinese citizens and tourists view masks daily, ensconced

in forms of sacred ritual as well as in entertainment. But we still see the mask’s

extraordinary vitality, always with glimpses of the sacred in varied global forms of

popular entertainment. The kid wearing a simple paper bag as a mask at the opening of

Titus affirms our “hard-wired prayer” for mythic illusion in order to more deeply

understand our quest for eternal truths. The mask at its most basic level metaphorically

achieves this premise with each successful performance. Without the maker of the mask,

and the influences of the traditional mask maker, considerable effort, indeed, crucial

effort toward this universal quest is diminished.

1 Blumenthal, Eileen and Taymor, Julie, Julie Taymor, Playing with Fire (New York: Harry N. Abrams,

Inc., 1995), 9,10.

2 Martin, Sergio, Dario Fo, The Theatre of the Eye (Florence, Italy: S.E.S. s.r.l., 1984), 24.

3 Campbell, Joseph, The Power of Myth (New York: First Anchor Books, 1991), 39,90. (Originally

published in 1988.)

4 Campbell, Joseph, Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God (New York: Penguin, 1991), 339-44.

(Originally published in 1959.)

5 Ibid., 257, 258, 282-86.

6 Brook, Peter, ‘The Mask: Coming Out of Our Shellin The Shifting Point: Theatre, Film, opera 1946-

1987 (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 218.

7 Laver, James, Costume in the Theatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 19.

8 Tseelon, Efrat, Masquerade and Identities (London: Routledge, 2001), 4—citing Napier, David,

Masks, Transformation and Paradox (Berkeley: University of California Press).

9 Campbell, Joseph, Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God (New York: Penguin, 1991), 131.

(Originally published in 1959.)

10 Tseelon, Efrat, Masquerade and Identities (London,: Routledge, 2001), 25—citing Sorrell, Walter, The

Other Face: The Mask in the Arts (London: Thames & Hudson).

Contact Mask Makers At:

Alstrom, Torbjorn,--Sweden:

Anom, I Bagus--Bali: C/O Newman,

Cook, Xstine--Canada:

Dawig, I Wayan--Bali: phone#: +62 361 299482

Donvieve--United States:

Hartis, Paul--United States:

Horta, Juan--Mexixo: C/O Orlando Horta,

Kim, Dong-Pyo,--Korea: C/O Sangdae Lee,

Iwasaki, Kyoun--Japan: C/O Akira Kiyomatsu, phone #: +81-742-44-9797

Marrs, Bruce--United States:,

Newman--United States:

Radtke, Joyce--United States:

Reece, Victor--Northwest Canada: C/O Sharon Jinkerson,

Sartori, Danato--Italy: C/O Paula Pizzi,

Suryasa, I Made--Bali: C/O Judy Slatum,

Yoshikawa, Touryu--Japan:

Quotes from Mask Makers around the World

1. I Made Suryasa. Bali

“The mask must not only look good, it must also have the ability to

receive and house the spirit. If one is lucky, the mask and performance

will have ‘taksu’. If the timing is good and the wood is good, I create a

beautiful house to invite the spirit of mask into. Then it is automatically

powerful. ‘Taksu’ is similar to ‘charisma’. Ron Jenkins (Subversive

Laughter) has referred to it as ‘stage presence’ and Joan Schirle (Dell’Arte

International performer/teacher) refers to it as ‘soul’. My preparation for

work as a mask maker or as a masked performer comes when I calm my

mind with breathing. My mood doesn’t necessarily push me, my

breathing encourages proper concentration.”

“I like to have several projects going on at once so that if I become

frustrated with one, I can leave it to work on something else that keeps my

energy engaged. I love performing the Old Man in Topeng Dance. My

performances are directly connected to the masks I make. I try not to

(simply) dance. I try to behave from my inner part to bring out the

character—this is beyond technique or culture. My performance becomes

Suryasa’s Old Man character.”

2. Juan Horta, Mexico

“The wood speaks to me and I start. First I watch the wood, consider

various types of personality and the block of wood gives me an idea—

though it is up to me to ‘sell’ the idea with the creation of the image.

Sometimes I have a dream and I get up to work and that mask has to be

finished with the idea from that dream.” Horta has especially enjoyed

performing in devil masks, admitting that he relates more easily to the

devil than to the saints.

His masks were selected by Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and featured in

their worldwide performances. His work is a part of the permanent

collection at the Mask Museim in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and has been

featured at Anaheim Museum, Institute of Chicago, and Brown University

among others.

3. Torbjorn Alstrom, Sweden

“I suppose I wanna be God. I want to make what he made even better or,

in agony, destroy what he made—well honestly this is true. Just

understanding that leather could be used for such a sculpted object, I was

thrilled. I just had to learn how to do that. The leather, the material itself

carries so much within itself—of life and sensuality, but also more

frightening things like power and violence.” When asked how he manages

to sleep after one of his horrific performances with his ‘Everyman

Grotesque Mask’ he responded, “I sleep very well. I get all that shit out

on stage and feel like an athlete feels good after a good workout.”

4. Donato Sartori, Italy

“I like to cook! Before I start my ideas for a project, I need a period of

investigation to take a look at the script, rehearsals, research—to try to get

the ‘smell’ of the project. At one point I know when it comes—I start

cleaning or I cook for twenty people. When that moment comes, I know

the next day I can begin work in my studio for as long as the project

requires. It is difficult to describe but I have to reach that ‘zero point’ and

then I go in one certain direction with my exploration. I leave the

organization of my business side. I work in another way with no planned


5. Bruce Marrs, United States

When asked how he initiates preparation or meditates in preparation for

making his masks Bruce responded, “This question reminds me of

Krisnamurti’s considerations about the notion of meditation—‘One

meditates, one finishes meditating, and then is not meditating?’ I am

never not an artist, and the bank is never empty. Well that’s probably not

true. I’m often stupid and dull. But I think my own interest is almost

always at work. When I begin a mask, I know that I have begun already,

long ago.”

“I prepare while waiting in line to buy coffee, while taking a shower,

while looking at a great work by an Egyptian sculptor four thousand years

old, or a painting, or a mask by a better mask maker. An interest is an

interest; it pops up all the time, inspires, curses, and the mystery of life

just seems to continue to foster the interest. Really, aren’t faces just the

most amazing thing?”

“I begin by gathering the clay or other materials and tools. I try to give

my mental idea some room to grow. A sense of line may be connected to

a feeling that has been nudging me for a while. I’ve got to let that feeling

take form through the body, to give my arms the groove, or the stroke.

Imagination is a mystery. Sometimes it follows the feeling. Sometimes it

leads. Sometimes it surfs on the crest of the feeling. Then, with a little

work done, that work looks back, seems to want to go some way, wants

more, wants less. At this point the work is in charge, not me.

6. Iwasaki Kyoun, Japan

Iwasaki is eighty years old and did not start making masks until he

reached his forties. His earlier years were fraught with the tensions and

poverty of Japan in the aftermath of WWII, near Hiroshima. “What has

always inspired me to make another mask is the happiness I feel when one

is completed. Each mask I make, even if it is a mask in the traditional

Noh style, becomes unique with my hands and heart. I especially enjoy

the carving, the painting, and the final finishing touches. I love to perform

in my masks and work regularly.”

7. Ida Bagus Anom, Bali

“I don’t like to work with sketches or photos. In art one must be free. I

sketch in my mind and I respond to the wood. The wood speaks to me.

I’m never satisfied with my masks. I always want to make something

better. Yet I live with a feeling for each mask. My wife sometimes asks

why I sell my special masks too low to people unable to appreciate them.

I agree with her, and sometimes raise my price to certain people like that.

I can never make another mask like the one I already made. Every mask I

make is unique.”

“Because I am also a dancer, Balinese music and dance are now inside me.

It is always with me along with the Balinese stories as I create my masks.

I like to chop and carve the wood to the rhythm of Balinese music.”

8. Victor Reece, Tsimshian Tribe, Northwest Canada

“I want others to understand the importance of my grandmother’s voice.

Keeping her stories alive through the masks I make and perform in is

important for my own family, my own community, and for the global

society as well. I express my culture and my grandmother’s voice

particularly as a carver of masks and as a storyteller. For me, carving and

storytelling are very compatible. When I go off to tell stories I don’t have

to stop carving. I can tell stories even as I carve.”

“A Hopi belief states that things change during any conflict arising from

the merging of two or more cultures. When things change, the people who

rise from the ashes of what is lost are the artists. Today, with so much

change, there is room for many artists, particularly mask makers.”

9. Newman, United States

“I have no spiritual preparation for my mask making. I take long walks

each day and often sit at the high spot of the mountain behind my studio. I

also enjoy sitting for a bit listening to music or NPR. Ha! The hearing of

voices! Well, perhaps that’s spiritual.”

“A special energy is harnessed in working with the mask that can evolve

into positive or negative energy, depending on the maker and the

performer of the mask.” He recalled a student who explored rather

sexually kinky things in his work with masks. Newman believes that this

person encouraged a sort of energy that had the potential to “push the

creator of such energy over the edge.”

Newman is as skilled in carving Balinese-styled wooden masks as he is at

molding Italian commedia dell’arte -styled leather masks.

10. Kim Dong-Pyo, Korea

Kim, a self-taught mask carver, has become very wealthy over the years,

particularly with the factory he established to sell versions of the

traditional commedia dell’arte-styled Hahoe half masks to tourists in the

Andong region. He made so much money that he decided to give the

ownership of his factory to the factory’s workers. He used his profits to

create an important museum of Korean masks. He specializes in

performing the female masked characters Pune (the flirtatious widow) and

Kaksi (the silent bride) from the Hahoe collection, and he performed for

Queen Elizabeth in 1999.

“My best time to make masks is between 10pm and 2am because I can

fully concentrate with no interruptions from my museum curatorial

activity or family. I like total silence or sometimes low music while

carving my masks. I escape into a more harmonious world. Sometimes I

feel like a monk with my life style—or perhaps like a vampire! The face

and personality of the mask are in the wood and I try to dig out the internal

mind of the mask with my carving. Each mask has its own spirit. You

have to see the entire moment of the masked performance and the spirit of

the mask, or you don’t see the mask at all.”

11. I Wayan Dawig, Bali

Dawig prays and meditates every morning. His teacher of mask carving

was a holy man and Dawig believes in the power of the spirit of the altar

(found in most Balinese homes) for his mask making. He is specially

known for his sacred Barong masks with versions of cat, tiger, or pig

influences depending on which region the mask will reside when

completed. The Barong mask is a good luck/protector mask performed by

two people in the Chinese dragon manner. Many other Balinese mask

makers like Dawig use a special paint/lacquer made of white crushed pig

bone and a glue derived from boiling sharkskin and buffalo hide. He

sometimes uses over thirty coats of this special paint in order to get a

strong smooth surface color.

12. Xstine Cook, Canada

“I like to tidy up when getting ready to create my masks. I’m not very

organized but I like a clean space. I like to clean a space to make a mess.

It looks like procrastination but it works for me as a process for preparing

my concentration.” Xstine, a member of the theatre company, Green

Fools, designs costumes and masks as well as performs with them. She

frequently directs and assists with writing the scripts in addition to serving

as marketing director for the company.

13. Yoshikawa Touryu, Japan

“I usually begin to focus on creating my mask by listening to public radio

or sometimes karaoke music. I don’t rest or wait for inspiration. If I have

an order I work it out right away. The finish of the mask has to be

especially well timed. I prefer the traditional use of natural fibers and

layers. Sometimes I work in the middle of the night if the proper finish

requires it.”

Yoshikawa often makes traditional versions of Noh masks but he

specializes in his own design of a mask that represents his region’s dragon

spirit. Local masked dancers mimic the dragon with undulating

movements and gestures simulating the rolling mountainous terrain. The

dragon spirit serves the god of the mountain as a protector of all the

inhabitants surrounding the mountain. The dragon mask often has horns

to create more ferocity in addition to movable lively eyebrows and mouth

as well as popping eyes. A photo of his altar for meditation is included


14. Paul Hartis, United States

Hartis spent over a decade as a puppet maker for the Muppets with Henson

Productions. Currently he works as a wardrobe specialist for Saturday Night Live

and as a props specialist for The Lion King. In his spare time he enjoys performing

for New York audiences as Orangeena. Orangeena was recently seen on the cover

of Blade, a local New York gay publication and in the Style Section of the New

York Times. His last performance was entitled The Passion of Orangeena (as she

was presented in her fourth trimester of pregnancy). “Ogee’s not been with anyone

for way over a year. Bummer, so I don’t know exactly how this pregnancy thing

happened. And no, I don’t think anyone whispered in her ear.”

15. Donvieve, United States

A well-known teacher of mask making in Northern California, Donvieve

believes that masks have remarkable potential for healing. “When things

don’t go well in a conflict, put on your self-portrait mask during the debate

and see how much better you see yourself and your own values in third

person. Try wearing your mask at home…at dinner, for example, and see

what comes up. My husband and I had such fun with this experience that I

created a portrait mask for him as well. We now frequently perform in our

‘Flo and Flim’ masks for local groups.” Donvieve is also a dancer and

costume designer for her one-woman (often masked) performances.

16. Joyce Radtke, United States

Radtke, herself a breast cancer survivor, assists others coping with

catastrophic illnesses by using mask making as a process to help them find

inner strength.

One of her protégés, Ed Duddleston, has been living with AIDS for fifteen

years and found Radtke’s mentorship inspiring. “While I worked with the

clay, I could harness my own spiritual energies,” he says. “I sort of let go

and trusted my inner spirit to make my inner guide mask exactly what it

needed to be. The process of coping with a life-threatening illness (like

the process of making a mask) takes you on a journey. You have to go

where the journey takes you. You can’t fight it. The journey is exactly

what it is supposed to be. If AIDS hadn’t come into my life I might still

be working fifteen hours a day waiting to retire before identifying my

most important life-issues. We rarely get a chance to put ‘a face’ on our

spirituality as I did with Joyce Radtke’s guidance. The journey of making

a mask is a sacred experience.”