Art Therapy Modalities | Masks

Masks created using plaster soaked gauze and mixed media:

The art therapies evoke responses precisely at the level at which psychotherapists seek to engage their patients and do so, more directly and immediately than do the more traditional psychotherapies.

~ Betram Brown, M.D., Former Director of the NIMH, 1979

The act of creativity is unstoppable in the human experience. It is what gives me hope during these times. ~ Mikel Gorman

In the therapeutic setting mask making is an interdisciplinary activity that may incorporate the expressive arts therapies, existential phenomenological or Jungian psychology, social commentary, multiculturalism, biology and spirit. Masks have been used throughout history for a myriad of reasons including ensuring a successful hunt or harvest, rites of passage for various stages of life, observing the change of seasons, and to draw down healing spirits or cast out those that are considered to be demonic. In ancient tribal rites the identity of the person wearing the mask is transformed into the deity of the mask. Masks are used in contemporary society for holidays, festivals, dramatic performances and also for social protest.

Masks are the most ancient means of changing identity and assuming a new persona. From the beginning, putting on a mask has never been a singular activity. In order for masking to have meaning and relevance, it needs an audience, a minimum of one observer. The urge, perhaps even universal human need, to transform ourselves has coexisted with the development of human society. . . . Masks have appeared in virtually every region of the world. They have been created to satisfy the desires and challenges to which societies must respond in order to survive and prosper, to maintain or reinvent identity. Masks symbolize our ability to change, transform, to go to other worlds, to appease the spirits. (Numley and McCarty, 1999, p. 15)

In therapy masks have been used to help clients explore identity, to identify and integrate disowned aspects of self, to explore spirituality through sacred art, to forge a deeper connection with a higher power, to assume a different or more empowered self, to process an event or emotions and to find balance. Masks have been created and used by human beings for at least 30,000 years.

The origins of the word mask are unclear, but it probably comes from the Arabic maskhara (mashara), which meant "to falsify" or "transform" into animal, monster, or freak. (Numley and McCarty, 1999, p. 15)

In a video by Gillian Wearing entitled, "Trauma," she has her subject wear the mask of a child's face and a "blatantly synthetic wig," while talking about her childhood sexual abuse.

The author Roberta Smith responds to the video in these words, "The mask alters the revelation in a fascinating way, both buffering and intensifying its dreadfulness, creating the conflicting desire to hang on every word while also pulling back to decipher the visual power and artifice of the scene. The mask is delicately tactful, yet deadening. It respects the speaker's need for privacy, yet it executes a weird, surreal transformation, turning the speaker into a kind of freak. Making the past present, it stands for the child within, symbolizing the trauma's stunting legacy, the innocence lost, and the rage concealed, yet its static expression and smooth surface make the pain-slicked eyes that glisten through its eye holes almost comical." (New York Times, December 3, 2002, B3)

The goal of mask making in therapy is largely personal, may vary throughout the client's progress in therapy, and the themes that emerge are often quite diverse. The chosen theme of the mask is to be determined within the context of the participant's life and the issues at hand. This is a rich, rewarding but also provocative technique. Clients chosen for this exercise need to grounded in reality and open to a self-confrontive process.

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