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Demonstration, How-To And Photographs Related To The Sculptural Process, With Much Emphasis On The Creative Why…
Painter Kelly's Academic work in masks
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Johnny Depp As Cad Bane On The Planet Of The Apes

or How Buster Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Skull

(Making Face Shell Bases, Facial Appliances, & A Lot Of Related History As the Basis of Inspiration…)

-In the workshop-

It’s, frankly, easier to put up some pictures and tersely rattle off how I craft something, and leave the why out – and I’m sure most people would rather I just got to the point.  –And I have doubts I’d be doing my best as an attempted teacher, so many wildly varying factors going into creative decisions.  I’d rather teach artists than craftsmen, not that art’s much good without craft, and for all that craft’s easily taught –it’s just technique and hard work one of which I can show and describe- while art’s really tough.

Let’s try, then, doing a terse demonstration with a little bit of purely practical reasons for doing, followed by a –skippable, if you don’t care about creativity or are just in a time bind ATM- rambling story about seemingly unconnected things straddling two decades that all feed into creative why I ended up making that skull shell base and say something about creativity and inspiration - Ideas come from all sorts of places, and it’s all connected.

I’ll bracket the strictly practical how-to/demonstration stuff between the horizontal lines.

The basic idea is that Sculpey –what I make most of my facial appliances of- noses and animal snouts are bad to crack/break/at least crumble around the edges when you’re prying them out of a mask, and/or some alterations are spread thinly around the face and impractical as loose pieces.

 So, my (second - the first had broken and been repaired and broken and been repaired and broken again) skull appliance had already broken once – I made a paper mache shell –maybe two layers- over the face base the skull part was made to fit, as if I was making a thinnish mask.


When the inner shell was dry and had been separated from the base, I put it back on the base, glued the skull on the inner layer with rubber cement, and ISTR that I went around the edge where it was crumbly and/or fit badly –the shell technique should allow a tight fit to the face and not permit chips to get away, so I shouldn’t have to carefully bridge gaps anymore during the mache-ing process- filling with new Sculpey and gave the whole shebang 20 minutes in the oven at 275 to bake the new Sculpey before I covered it all with two or three more layers of paper mache.

Here it is enclosed, dried, and off the base so I could begin doing a similar thing with a nose appliance - but in a ¾ face form that would still need the base to sit on…

The teeth aren’t covered because the teeth are tricky to get the detail out on a mask and I wanted minimal layers smoothing out – the rest is covered because it holds it together if it cracks inside the sandwiching layers anyway, and because latex doesn’t stick to bare Sculpey very well, but loves paper – and I’m going to be sorry down the road when the latex over the teeth has peeled away so much it had to be cut out to get the wrinkles out of the way, and the mache gums start exposing…

I dabbed a water-and-glue-resistant layer of latex on with a finger, set it to dry, repeated later in the day, and so on for five or six days until I deemed the latex coat thick enough to resist pulling away from the substratum and/or pinching-wrinkling, and the end result was this:


I could manage a mask on it without setting it on the base for support if I really had to, but it’d be sagging under my hands and moving around the whole time – weaker up at the arch of the forehead, especially, and the next time I make a full shell, I’m making the first layer thick – because why require it to tie up one of my bases when the shell covers everything and I could have just made it strong enough to stand alone?  This, one, I'm trying to decide whether the trade-off is worth it of sacrificing that I can nest it with other shells to collectively take little space in storage –I’ve got a lot of bases, and the solid ones take up a lot more room- for strength by filling the back with some of that expanding insulation foam that comes in spray cans…



I got into the mask-making about 20 years ago when my sister, a professor who taught university-level comm. studies/reader’s theater was putting on a small show about the Maya and modern tourist culture in former Maya country, and there were several Mayan folk tails re-enacted – and I don’t remember if masks were my idea or hers all along, but I volunteered that I could make some jutting Maya noses, mount them on blank ball masks, and make paper mache masks for the show.  That, intended for the folk tales, IIRC, ended up taking over the show, being used in all parts.

(Slapping masks on your actors –and this is highly dependant on contextual factors and appropriateness to the story- can effectively replace Actor X playing a role onstage with an iconic, archetypical figure representing an idea, or stock character.  The genericizing can be universalizing.)

Kelly wrote and directed a number of mask shows in the next few years, and our niece Buster was born, and around the age of four started asking for animal masks, and between the two of them, I got a lot of free ideas for creative projects.  I’ve done cats and monkeys and eagles and Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera –and the bull from Picasso’s Guernica- for one or the other until Buster grew up -though I finished her request for a mask of her dog just two weeks ago- and Kelly retired; but I’d definitely found a gift for a creative/ craft medium.  Paper mache masks are a low-overhead medium for doing useful sculpture art of faces – they’re not just a costume piece; they can class up a wall hanging there as a sophisticated decoration.

-And therein lies a story...


Young Buster -she HATES when I call her Buster- had conceived an unreasoning fear of some typical Halloween stuff, bad enough to be a serious problem.  She used to be so terrified of pumpkins that she could barely leave the house in October ---

See, it came to pass that on a visit, she and I were alone in the house when, on an episode of Bernstein Bears we were watching, some bad older boys were doing Halloween scaring stuff -and of course that upset her badly- so I explained Halloween was pretend and fake -I kept repeating that, and I proved it-  I carved a jack-o’-lantern face in an apple in front of her, improvised a spider out of wire and chewed up toilet paper pulp and showed her how to make a lame Halloween ghost out of a balloon and a blanket and string- that last, just like the bad boys had used.  I’ve always understood that that was the end of awkward incidents involving fear of jack-o’-lanterns/pumpkins, and made October habitable again for her family…

She certainly remembered it and thought it helped; something like a six months to a year later –we lived in different states at the time and didn’t see each other often- she asked me to carve her a skull (her latest phobia, what with a certain pirate movie series successful enough that you couldn't take her anywhere without running into Johnny Depp and associated symbols making for a real  problem) out of an apple, and this not ten minutes before they went home, or I’d have done it.

What I did do was conceive of a skull mask for her Christmas present.   I deliberately simplified the anatomy; I wanted to suggest a skull in a less-threatening way. Rounded off/enlarged the eye sockets and left out a lot of detail.  Painted it myself, a flat white with no shading.

On that previous visit, she’d noticed a crone mask (also from Touring Mayaland) where it was propped on a dresser outside my office/workshop downstairs


- and was, naturally, afraid of it - and had someone take her downstairs every day to see it from the bottom of the stairs, a distance of over 30 feet..

That's the spot I set the skull mask up at, and the way I introduced her to it.  She could control her exposure to the skull mask herself from a safe distance, and work up to it at a pace of her choosing.  (Incidentally, my friend Uno, of An Unorthodox Halloween, now believes that his vast body of [excellent] Halloween art is his way of dealing with a terrible experience with death when he was eight.)

It worked a heck of a lot faster than I'd expected -which was a visit a day to look from a distance while she worked up her courage the rest of the Christmas visit- what with I've got that photo of her upstairs in Momma's sewing room wearing it 20 minutes later.

(Note the background - Mom's a doll artist.)
...Incidentally, Buster's Aunt made me make her, Buster's Aunt, six more, the slave driver, which she painted as Day of the Dead masks and hung on her office wall for years until she retired.  That's what's pictured at the top of this section.  -And some of those are still around and for sale...


...On a related note, though I think this was before the Halloween fears stuff:  I had a mask that I'd done off a casting of Kelly's face that I'd painstakingly painted with fleshtone latex and shading, good/realistic enough to have a decided uncanny valley effect (I called it "Dead Kelly") and which I later gave to Buster as part of a mask goodie horde I'd taken her on a visit.

She'd never put it on, preferring all the bare newsprint masks, until it was close at hand when her mother was in the room, whereupon she held it over her face and growled.  They later painted it something garish -God bless her mother; that's how you get a kid interested in creative stuff, to do it under their direction when they're little, tapering off as they learn to do themselves-  to my colossal regret at seeing good (and hard and lengthy) work covered up - but I suppose that was necessary part of letting her control the things she feared...

One message of all this is that art can have intrinsic educational value; giving children control over a thing they irrationally fear is effective therapy.  (Another is read to children if you want them to grow up loving reading, and paint, etc., with them to encourage creativity, and so on.)  -And ideas come from all sorts of places.


Dialing forward a decade (and I gave Buster a skull candle for her 14th birthday, fer realz) the Reverend Doctor Buster’s Daddy, my little brother, had gotten us (himself and his rustic carpentry, me and our older sister and our masks collaboration, and Buster and the fairies she makes now) involved in a local art gallery, which set off a new frenzy of mask-making, and my first idea for something new for that -ideas come from all sorts of places- was inspired by the new litter of kittens, some of whom looked a little in facial markings like masked wrestlers, so wrestling masks done in paper mache.  (There was also a cat mask, but that took longer - stay tuned.)

You’d think that would be easy, but I envisioned simulating the way cloth pulled tight and evened out the features, and --- (The thumbnails all link to much larger shots in case you want a closer look)


-That was how I came to make my first shell base, not ten whole months ago.  I knew the Sculpey additions around the nose weren’t going to make for something solid I could just treat as an appliance and put on the base, too many pieces too small, so I laid down a shell, did the filling in, and enclosed with more mache and coated it with latex.  I just set the whole thing on the base it was made on for support, and made the mask as usual.  It turned out that a shell, with some flex, is easier to pry out of a dried mask.  (Here’s four dried and trimmed results.) 


And it struck me that the same method could protect and hold together some of my other appliances.



You recognize the ones on either end in that last shot, of course, and the one in the middle had a convoluted origin.

It began with the cat mask I mentioned earlier...


-And when I posted the last unpainted mask pic up there on my forum, someone –looking at the muzzle, I guess- suggested that with modifications of the cat base, do Planet of the Apes-style ape masks.   (It was Uno, BTW.)

 I replied that I thought I'd make a different new base for that, and “That's basically something to build over the skull mask - same shape...”

 -Which brings us full circle -ideas come from all sorts of places, and it’s all connected- but isn’t the end of the story.  I still had my first skull appliance, just it was a wracked-up, multi-patched, mess.  I also had an appointment for an exhibition/demonstration at the gallery in town and a collaborator who suggested that a sculptural demonstration of base-making would be more interesting and less trouble and mess than macheing a mask. So now I had a project for Saturday…


See, the skull appliance was already shaped very like an (Planet of the) ape face –the eye ridges were the same and the bottom of the face narrows the same- so cover the naked teeth with a muzzle, and we’re in business.


-And of course no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.  The skull nose stuck out too far (room for a live human nose under it), too high for what I was doing.  –But by luck, I’d brought along an exacto knife with my tools…


And I was struck, as I smoothed in the muzzle shape before putting an ape nose on, what a fine, Jim Starlin-esque, alien face it was as-is.  In fact, Buster, who was there making fairies, said it looked like Cad Bane from Star Wars: Rebels.  I decided to go with the alien thing, and make up an optional ape nose appliance later for the original idea.  Back home, I did further refining and started a shell.


-There was something on the order of a week between the third and last picture – getting the latex coat thick enough to survive getting the mask off without damage takes a while.  I was dying to get to the point where I could run off a couple of nose-less space monkeys.


...And now I could work on that ape nose...


And realized that, with the separate nose, I could have both Galen and General Urko…


And that finally closes the circle.

Ideas come from all sorts of places, and it’s all connected…


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