Monday, January 21, 2019

Wisdom Mask - From Sketch to Linocut

It's funny how setting limits can increase creativity. As an art instructor, I often go in new directions because of project ideas I set for my students. On February 16th and 17th, I am teaching a workshop called Magical Masks: Linocut Weekend Workshop (you can register HERE) inspired by the current special exhibit "Congo Masks" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, through February 24th. As I worked on my own linocut mask example to show students, I had ideas for many masks. I may end up making a mask series!

One practice I've been incorporating in recent years is to create a piece of art I can put on my studio wall to represent the state of mind or qualities I want to embody. I decided to use the idea of creating a mask to help me with this.

Let me walk you through my process...

I started off by visiting the Congo Mask exhibit at the VMFA. It was a beautiful exhibit. All of the following masks are from different regions and cultures within the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Common materials were wood, pigment, and raffia. The information related was transcribed or paraphrased from the placards in the exhibit.

Anthropo-Zoomorphic Ndunga Face Mask
First quarter of the 20th century
Sundi Culture

I loved the simplicity and bold shapes of this mask. And the ears!

Ndunga Face Mask and Replica Costume (Mamboma)
First quarter of the 20th century
Woyo culture

What a fantastic mask and costume! It is speculated that it may represent a member of the secret ndunga society, which sought to restore justice and to uphold social order and ancestral law within their communities. It was also speculated that the mask may have been performed to ward off disease, and that the painted dots represented smallpox.

Large Face Mask (Pumbu)
Second quarter of the 20th century
Eastern Pende culture

According to the placard, this pumbu mask was performed following times of crisis, disease, and famine in the community to help restore order and good will. What struck me about this mask was its bold features, the raffia beard (raffia was a very common material in many of the masks), and intricately carved and whitened patterns. 

Round Striated Forehead Mask
First quarter of the 20th century
Luba culture

This mask may have represented beings relating to the Luba culture's origin myths, as well as the moon and spirit realm. The crest at the rear was thought to serve as an antenna for detecting evil. Something about this mask really reminded me of a Dr. Suess character! I think it is the eyes.

Oops, I didn't take down the info for these masks. But I love how sculptural they are. They look like crescent moons to me.

Horned Face Mask (Kayamba)
First quarter of the 20th century
Lega culture

Whenever I'm doing visual research, I like to not only take photographs, but sketch from life. I believe this imbues my hands and spirit with the "feeling" of my subject. Also, when I'm drawing from life I get a better understanding of what it takes to create my own version, and I'm able to move around and see the object from different angles in case I don't really understand what I'm seeing. With photographs, the image is already flattened and it's hard to "zoom in" on a detail if you didn't take the right photo. It's also hard to tell things like the actual color or material of an object. I only drew a couple of masks, but it gave me a better sense of how dimensional and well-balanced these masks are, even the ones that appear simple.

Pencil on cold press watercolor paper. Over the summer I made a small sketchbook that is lightweight and easy to fold the covers back, which I like to use for sketching from life. 

Later in the week, I began sketching ideas for my own mask. I looked through my notes and photos, thinking about such elements as the visual look of the masks - I was personally drawn to masks with simplified shapes and highly stylized features; the performance aspect of masks - they are worn with costumes and performed with dance and singing for various purposes such as spiritual ceremonies and rites of manhood; the colors used (mostly red, black, and white pigments); and the natural materials that were specific to the different regions. I also loved how dimensional the masks were, and wanted my linocut to look like a real object incorporating some shadows. I can't say I'm an expert on Congo masks, but I tried to use what I learned as a guide for thinking about the elements of a mask.

I began doodling and writing a list of some of the qualities and gifts I want to embody and learn from this year. I thought about what the different features of the face could symbolize: eyes for vision and clarity. Mouth for speaking truth. I had a couple of dreams about snakes recently, so I drew one on the page.

Then I got totally overwhelmed! I realized I needed to take a lesson from my favorite Congo masks and SIMPLIFY! And also, to switch mediums.

Instead of trying to cram all the elements I'd wanted into one mask, I used one or two to give a focus to each mask. Sometimes when I'm feeling stuck or afraid to make a move, I switch mediums to help me. There's something so final about a drawing, but collage allows for re-arranging shapes easily before gluing them down. I cut some shapes out of painted papers: leaves, a shell, a snake, a tree trunk. I played with them and arranged some pleasing combinations. I decided to let go of trying to mentally direct the idea of each mask, and instead let shapes and colors guide me to what felt right. I added watercolor. At first, stylizing the human face was harder than I thought. I'm more comfortable drawing animals, so it made me respect the vision and craftsmanship that went into creating the Congo masks. After awhile I loosened up and began to have more fun with it.

I settled upon the mask at the right (above) for my first carving! 

I sketched ideas for backgrounds to add environments and mood to the masks. Then I was ready to start my linocut! I begin as I always do, measuring and cutting my linoleum to size with a razor blade. Then I applied a watered-down india ink wash to the surface. I traced my mask from my sketchbook onto tracing paper, then transferred it to the linoleum plate with white Saral brand transfer paper. I knew from the blue watercolor sketch above that I wanted to keep the stars and leaves of the background very simple, so I started carving there. 

But I kept avoiding working on the actual face. I'll tell you the truth, I'm often scared before I dive into a piece of artwork - afraid to make decisions for fear I'll mess it up. Afraid to invest so much time into something that might not look the way I hoped. Deciding about how to carve the face was hard because I started off with a full-color watercolor/collage sketch, and linocut is a totally different medium! In linocut, you either cut or you don't cut. There is no tone. Also, you can plan for colors in a linocut, but you have to think ahead a bit. I've used a few different methods to add specific areas of color in linocut. You can carve multiple plates, each a different color, to print in layers. You can leave blank space to hand-paint later in watercolor. There's also chine-collĂ©, which involves adding colored papers during the printing process.

Anyway, I forged ahead blindly without deciding how I would add color to my linocut until I had already carved the background (generally not recommended!) I thought about carving two plates, but then settled on carving just one plate and hand-coloring. There are some printmakers who plan exactly what their cut will look like ahead of time. I almost never do that, because for me the most fun part of making a linocut is carving and uncovering what it's going to look like. I often make decisions I regret, and sometimes I can carefully fix them (see my post on Linocut Surgery), but sometimes I just have to let it be. Usually it's good enough for me! Anyway, I realized I couldn't stall any longer and had to make a move. So I began carving the top section of the forehead and the shell!

One thing that helps me when I'm worried about how to go about a piece of art, is to remember that it doesn't just come from myself. I believe art comes from another realm and I need to be sensitive about accessing that other world and allowing ideas to come into physical existence. My dad has talked to me about this before, and a few years ago I heard about it in Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic." So if I'm afraid, I think, "What wants to come into existence?" rather than "What do want this to be?" 

Moving on to the lower part of the face, I sketched out fine lines in white colored pencil. I like working in pencil because I can change it around and erase. Another method is using white watercolor pencil and wiping away unwanted elements with a damp tissue or cloth. Notice on the photo below that I tried out a checker pattern on the snake/nose but later ended up removing it.

I've never carved such fine parallel symmetrical lines like this before. I would not recommend this for a beginner! Luckily, I didn't mess it up.

And here is the finished linocut! I'm quite pleased with it. Well, it's not over because I haven't printed it or added watercolor. As you can see, areas in the original watercolor sketch that had color were carved away. These areas will not print, so I can paint into them later.

I call this piece, "Wisdom Mask." For me, the shell represents wisdom - both spiritual wisdom and cultivating my mental faculty to think and make decisions without wasting so much energy on fear and anxiety. The snake/nose represents grounding down my energies into the earth. The full cheeks and gently smiling mouth are a reminder of a child's innocence and joy.

I loved how dimensional this piece looked when carved. Maybe one day I will carve real masks out of wood.

And there you have it! I will post again once I print this mask.

If you live near the Richmond, VA area and are interested in taking my workshop, the information and registration link is below. Though I will say that carving this mask took me awhile, so for this workshop we'll focus on carving a mask without the background, and your design should be considerably simpler to carve, especially if you're a beginner. I've been doing this for many years, so I challenged myself a bit with this cut and don't expect you to do the same!

Magical Masks: Linocut Weekend Workshop NEW! [54]

Sat & Sun, Feb 16 &17, 10 am–4 pm (2 sessions) | Studio School, 1st floor Aijung Kim
Masks can simplify or exaggerate a human character. They can represent animal, magical, or non-human qualities that the wearer wishes to embody. The class will tour the Congo Masks exhibition in the VMFA galleries to explore the materials, aesthetics, and meanings of Central African masks. The group will then return to the printmaking studio to design their own mask. The instructor will demonstrate how to design, transfer, carve, ink, and print a linoleum cut inspired by the mask theme.
Register HERE.