Hi! It’s been awhile. But for great reasons! I’ve been working on lots of projects in the last few months. Here’s a little about one of them.
Canby High has a team of about 25 dancers who participate in large dance competitions around the region. The dances are performed on a large gymnasium floor, with some sort of scenery specific to the concept of the piece. They have been working with choreographer James Healey for the past few years, and have made some stunning work. This last October, we began a conversation about masks they could wear… on the backs of their heads.
The concept had to do with shifting perception and multiple ways of seeing. So my goal was to conceive of a design that would come alive on the performer with all of the limbs moving slightly differently to how we are accustomed.
To communicate over digital media, I took shots of the mask from a variety of perspectives.
It was decided that the show would have three designs, but multiple copies of that design.
I used an existing mask to try out a helmet strategy for wearing. We scrapped it.
James shared some images and we talked about the feeling the masks should have. I sculpted with these emotions in mind, and also tried to capture the faces in a series of planes, slightly abstracting them.
Neoprene glows nicely when backlit by the sun!
Another strategy for wearing. Closer…
We knew the rest of the design would be in blacks, grays, and whites, in keeping the conceptual element of one way vs. many ways. It was decided that I would form the masks, and the arts students at Canby would paint them using my advice.
So many faces!
Priming the neoprene to prepare for painting.
An inspirational image. The director wanted to incorporate some reflective surfaces on the masks to match the costuming. (Thanks Lauren Adams of White Bike Ceramics!)
The students explored how best to paint the masks. High contrast was necessary for the sculpture to ‘read’ in the large dance space.
The dancers came into my studio early in the process to determine how the masks would need to be arranged to carry out the choreography. They were so much fun! And they were very excited about the masks… which I think you can see in some of the photos below.
What makes a mask a mask? How does a change in technology affect this ancient practice of transformation? I stumbled upon this video on Facebook. It’s pretty interesting what they are doing. In one respect, it’s a live-time version of makeup—the face is decorated with moving images, but the dimensions of the face are not altered as they would be when wearing a physical mask.
Later, I looked around for more information. I found another blogger’s article here. Text below is reprinted from that post.
“On a Christmas episode of Fuji Television’s SMAP X SMAP, two members of the J-pop boy band SMAP (Shingo Katori and Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) were used to demonstrate just how close we are to the next level of using these type of “laser” projectors in an entertainment venue. Both members had little round nodules placed at strategic points on their face to allow for a motion-tracking software program to follow their movement and adjust for the beams of light to “colour” their face in a wide-variety of ways. In one moment they would look like a Transformer and in another, they are cat-like aliens in disguise. Shingo and Tsuyoshi-san wore real make-up to help highlight their facial structures and to act like a reflective canvas medium for the lights to sculpt their faces into truly alien forms. To note, they had to close their eyes during the demonstration.”
What do you think? Is it a mask, or something else?
Once it was confirmed that I would be working in India this fall, I was excited to see if I could find out more about Indian mask traditions. Quick internet searches yielded little, only some tribal Himalayan masks to the north, and a number of colorful pieces in neighboring Sri Lanka.Talking with some people on the Maya project as well as other mask friends gave me a few more ideas about where to look.
Here’s a little of what I found!
Kerala is a state in southern India that borders the Arabian Sea. It is also home to kathakali, a highly stylized drama/dance. The stories told in this form vary, but many are from the Mahabharata epic.
If you arrive early to the performance, not only do you get to observer the performers apply their intense makeup, you also get a better seat. And I’m really glad we did.
After the makeup was applied, there was a demonstration of the techniques used in the dance. You must train for many years before performing in the kathakali, and the abilities of the dancers makes this clear.
The way they could move their eyes was nothing short of amazing. Eyes are very important in the communication of emotions in the drama, and these dancers have amazing muscular control. In addition, the performers of kathakali can isolate muscle groups in their face. Not just like flaring nostrils or wiggling ears—try to imagine just the tops of the cheeks bouncing up and down while the rest of the face remains calm. It’s impressive!
The character designs painted on their faces come alive as these muscle isolations occur. These facial gestures are combined with mudras, or coded positions of the hands, to complete the attitude.
Kerala Folklore Museum
In Ernakulam, a more modern town across the water from Kochi, I was excited to find a museum dedicated to folklore. There were several interesting faces inside. The museum was not always the most successful in providing context for the various images, but I did start to get a sense of mask styles from different regions.
There were also a few examples of puppets in the museum. I knew there were some famous puppets in the state of Rajasthan in the north, but these have a different feeling than their northern relations.
Museum of Mankind
We moved on to the state of Karnataka, just north and east of Kerala. In the city of Mysore, famed for ashtanga yoga and sandalwood crafts, we visited the Indira Ghandi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (aka the Museum of Mankind).
The collection features many tribal art forms from different parts of India. I was lucky to find included a couple of masks from the Himalayas in this southern state. The style is quite different form the types I had seen in Kerala. I imagine the species of wood used for carving is different as well.
Though I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t find as many masks as I had hoped, the museum also features a large collection of terra cotta figures from around India. These figures provide some insight into the style and decorative idiosyncrasies of the culture to which they belong.
Today I complete another revolution around the sun. I am in the same place, but not in the same place. Unlike any previous year, I am in another country for my birthday.
I will be spending it NOT working, and doing a bit of roaming around Mumbai and sharing food with friends. I am so very lucky to do what I do. It’s not just the passive accident of where and when I was born, it is also the summation of active gestures—positive and negative— from people all over that create the circumstances in which I live. For all of these I am grateful.
Thank you to my supportive friends and family, to my boyfriend, to Teach For India and ASTEP, to the wonderful people of India, to the entire production crew of Maya, to all who have helped me afford to make this trip, to everyone whose actions may be invisible to me, but help me all the same.
Special thanks to Sheetal, Raju, Sunita, Sajida, and Shaheen for helping me stay well fed.
To whoever invented the table top fan: I salute you. You have helped my sculpting in the back room of the Dadar studio feasible.
Thanks also to the Heart of the Beast and BareBones puppeteers of Minneapolis—Mark, Alison, Masa, Bart, Julian, Soozin, and all the others—who introduced me to the wonders of sculpting with recycled cardboard and to the eternally amazing Creature Stapler.
Making the Keeper of the Copper Mask
Making a mask with cardboard armature is really fun. I started with a basic idea of an approach. As I made each decision, the next choice became clear. It’s one of the best things about creating.
As promised, more photos! Click on the link above to see all the photos in the blog and many, many more. It is such a pleasure to share them with you, and to give a little visual context for all I’ve been writing about.
This trip was done through a program of Dell’Arte International. It was made possible in part by funding from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
Here are my photos from our visit to the mask and puppet museum near the village of Mas in Bali. There are many masks from major Balinese performance traditions of Calonarang, Topeng, and Wayang Wong included. There were also masks from other Indonesian isles and many other countries. I’ve included text from the museum placards (or at least the spirit of it) in the descriptions for each photo.
Enjoy! Full photo album from the trip forthcoming!
Your friendly neighborhood mask maker,
This trip was made possible in part by a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.
Re-entry is interesting. And by interesting, I mean full of surprises. Surprise is also, itself, interesting. And therefore surprise is…surprising.
I’m not just playing circular word games. Surprise, like accidents, cannot ever be fully predicted. For example, when thinking about my reactions to coming back to the US after studying abroad, I could see some likely outcomes, and was therefore relatively prepared for those. But re-entry is surprising (=interesting (=surprising)). No matter how much I might look ahead or prepare, there will always be something surprising, something I won’t see coming. Yet somehow I’m always surprised by the fact that I get surprised. And that’s interesting.
It was surprising to me to find the way in which the known parts of my life at home were feeling foreign. Suddenly awake and confused with jetlag at 4am, I looked at everything in my room. “This is mine. I chose these things. This is the way they look.” Somehow it felt all very faraway. Recognizable, yes; but the thread of connection was difficult to perceive.
A few days have passed, and the feeling has largely diminished. And as my home reality takes precedence, I want to record a list of sights and impressions from my trip before they, too, seem distant and difficult to connect with.
Sights and Sites
(These are in no particular order)
° Sidewalks are segmented, and some stones have metal handles. The walkway often has several stones which have fallen in, revealing the water channels beneath. These channels are all connected to each other.
° Sarongs, sarongs, sarongs! They are commonly sold in printed, batik, or ikat fabrics.
° Shops that are all selling mostly the same things, right next to each other. Bargaining is the way things are done. “I give you good price, for luck.” Keep your sense of humor.
° The lack of idle chatter about first world problems, celebrities, and so on. How refreshing!
This is not to say I didn’t witness some very odd Javanese game shows and soap operas on mute in the central room at the hotel.
° Coconut, banana, papaya, and jackfruit trees are widespread. There was even a mangosteen tree on the grounds of the hotel! Thankfully durian were more rare.
° The frequent appearance of the words “spa” and “villa.” These words are replacing the words “rice paddies” with increasing frequency.
° Bottles of petrol for sale on the side of the road. You can buy in either kecil (small) or besar (large). The large fills your motor scooter tank, and costs 1400 rupiah. That’s about $1.
° Very noticeable is the red and grey and black coloration of so many housing compounds and temples.
° I enjoyed the moments where I started to understand what I was seeing. Just the beginning of understanding really, like when you’re learning a language, and every so often you recognize a word instead of only hearing sounds. The positions of the golden statues I’d seen along the road when I arrived were suddenly recognizable choreography. When looking at a painting or temple figure, I could recognize a character or sometimes a part of the story of the Mahabharata or Ramayana. What was aesthetic appreciation at first now carries more context and has more meaning.
° Black and white checkered sarongs wrapped around banyan trees, signifying they have a spirit and are protected. These sarongs also sometimes appear on certain statues. Balinese religion is a fascinating mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism. Good and evil are both acknowledged as forces in the world—our purpose is to keep them in balance.
° Offerings are everywhere. Not just on the front porch, or in a little box at the corner of a building. Even in the middle of the supermarket, there are offerings.
° Wayan Wija talking to us about his role as a dalang (puppeteer). The dalang is also a sort of a priest and philosopher. He often deals in ancient stories that bring to life questions of philosophy, while also providing something for the eyes to enjoy. Wija says that even in Bali, so many now are filled up with material concerns, few have room in them for philosophy.
° Parisawata tour buses choke the small, winding back roads… Chinese and Australian tourists wander in downtown Ubud… white people look hot and uncomfortable while some Balinese are wearing jackets, because it’s cold to them.
° The smell of cempaka incense.
° Frogs performing their own version of a kecak or a gamelan. All three—frogs, chant, and orchestra—produce interlocking sounds that are beautifully trance-like and transporting. But how do the frogs all know to cease at same time?
° Our mask carving teacher talked to us about the meaning of the progression of the characters in the one-man topeng pajegang. The progression of the story mirrors the the entire life of a person. The dancer moves from the rough path of youth with strong will and body (topeng keras) to the strength of mind and experience (topeng tua) to the enrichment of life gained from sharing experience (topeng penasar) to the leadership of others (topeng dalem) and finally to success and prosperity (topeng sida karya).
This trip was made possible in part by a professional development grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
I write this blog from the airport as I wait for my flight to Portland to board. I wanted to catch you all up on the masks I’ve been making in Bali. In my last post, you saw the old man bondres I completed. My teacher pushed me to start two more, so that I could get the hang of beginning from a simple block of wood.
Mask 2: Gajah Mada
For the second mask, I decided to make one that could be used in the dance we were learning. I sketched a version of the prime minister that I wanted to create. He’s a warrior, and the first to dance in the topeng.
After I showed my sketch to my teacher, he said it was a “Gajah Mada” character. I was confused, as gajah means elephant. (Remember when I went to the Goa Gajah cave? That was fun.) He said it was more of a metaphor, and refers the feeling of strength of the character.
Mask 3: The Gentle Giant
For my final mask I was to start in Bali, I knew I wanted something a little coarser and with a moving jaw.
While working on this mask, Pak Nyoman stood back and let me figure things out as much as he could, which I appreciated. It can be difficult to willingly dive in to your own inevitable mistakes, but it’s much more worthwhile.
And it’s also a bit slower going! I elected to take a couple of extra classes to get some more guidance. It was fun to work one on one. We got to talk about mask styles from around the world. Nyoman also mentioned that although he is happy to carve traditional Balinese characters, he also welcomes the challenge of other styles, traditional or modern.
But then again, who wouldn’t? It’s part of the artist’s work and the human condition to follow inspiration and find those things that feed your soul.
Though I am en route to Portland, fear not, faithful readers! I will be continuing my blog into the future. There are still some things about Bali to write about, and there will always be more masks I’d love to share with you!
This trip was made possible in part by a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.
Late Friday night at 10:30 pm, we drove to a pura dalem (temple of the dead) in a nearby village to witness a Calonarang ritual. After mistakenly landing at what seemed to be a carnival, then finding a Calonarang, but at the wrong temple, we arrived and settled in to watch. It was a little hard to follow, but it deals with white and black magic, and honoring the balance between good and evil. We got home around 2:30 am. To the pictures!
The next morning, five of us went to a water temple in Tempaskiring. It was a really awesome place.
A spring billows up through the sand in a rectangular pool populated by some plants, a few minnows and an eel.
Not far away are a couple of pools featuring many spouts from the spring, each with it’s own spiritual function in a purification ritual. The first ten are for cleansing the undesirable aspects of character, the next two for death and cremation rituals (most necessarily skip these), then one for cleansing bad dreams, one for supplying wisdom, one for erasing unkept promises, one for bad memories, and the final seven for cleansing the seven chakras of the body. It’s a special experience.
Afterwards, a trip to a coffee plantation last weekend was also pretty amazing. We were lead through a path containing a couple kinds of coffee plants, vanilla vines, cinnamon and clove trees (the leaves smell too!!), ginger flowers, cocoa pods, lemongrass, citronella, and snakefruit.
We reached a small hut where another fellow was slow roasting (2 hours) a small batch of coffee next to another small cage where the luwak (civet) was kept.
For those unfamiliar, this small weasel-like mammal has a taste for ripe coffee cherries–but it can’t actually fully digest the bean. A delicacy (and purported aphrodisiac) is the coffee made from the beans collected from the poo of the luwak. At our subsequent coffee tasting, some elected to pay 50,000 rupiah (about $4) to try the luwak coffee. I elected to to stick with the other complimentary and poo-free varieties. Call me unadventurous if you will, but there was nothing but a tepid response among those who dared.
The Wonders of Klungkung
I began the last day of our only full weekend looking at the murals at Kertha Gosa (the Hall of Justice) at the Klungkung Palace. These grounds were largely destroyed in conflicts with the Dutch in the early 20th century. The grounds were renovated in the 1960s.
In addition to the morally instructive depictions, there are also series of panels telling the Balinese story that parallels A Thousand and One Nights as well as instructions for marriage… or at least our guide told us. We weren’t sure how much he was making up and how much was accurate. We also visited the museum nearby.
It is a small trek to get to this white sand beach, but the reward is worth it! The water was an amazing blue blue blue and it was so warm and buoyant. I even went snorkeling for the first time!
As someone who grew up in a landlocked place, I’ve always found the prospect of purposely immersing yourself a location where simply anything can eat, sting, or drown you to be mortifying. But after a few mistaken gulps of salt water, it wasn’t too bad. Seeing a school (I almost typed “herd.” See also: Midwestern) of medium-sized black fish swim through the coral was fantastic. I actually look forward to the chance to do it again!
The day rounded out with a dusk visit to Goa Lawah, the Bat Cave Temple. As we waited for the evening exodus of the bats, we watched the evening offerings being made and chatted with some Hungarian ex-pats who were showing the sights to visiting relatives.
When the bats started leaving, it was a real sight—not quite like a horror movie, but a pretty dense cloud of flying mammal. I wasn’t sure how long to stay, but the bats let me know with an offering of their own placed on my head. As I was in full temple gear, I was mostly relieved it didn’t get on my udeng—and really grateful for the packages of baby wipes my boyfriend had packed for me.
This trip was made possible in part by a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.
It’s been another delightful week in Bali. How interesting it’s been to discover how all the arts we are studying are connected. The masks must be carved for the dancers to wear. The hand movements of the dancers echo the movements of the puppets. Mask carvers are also often dancers, or sometimes gamelan players.
And faces appear everywhere, not just on performers.
They appear in the middle of stone walls facing the wantilung where we have dance and kecak classes. Faces line the paths in the forest that trace the path of the river and adorn the edges of buildings and columns. Faces are everywhere!
Mask carving is progressing nicely- I may be able to begin a second mask on Monday! It’s fun trying to translate things I already know into a new medium, and to hear the insight of a master carver. Nyoman is also full of stories about Balinese culture.
And here are some more faces around Ubud:
The Mask Museum
Last Wednesday, we took a mini-break from classes to visit a mask and puppet museum in a nearby village. It is so very rare to see this many masks in one place– and the whole visit is free of charge.
The first building concentrated mostly on variations of the Barong mask. The Barong is an animal figure that protects the village. There are several variations, including the boar barong, elephant barong, tiger barong, and the barong ket.
The next building featured many masks of the Topeng—the mask dance form we are studying—as well as character masks from the Ramayana. Topeng dances feature storylines from the golden age of Balinese kings, and feature characters like the prime minister, the old man, and the king. While those characters are pantomimed, the servants and bondres clowns speak to the audience. Each dance closes with the Sida Karya mask.
The museum also houses collections of masks from around the world, as well as shadow puppets from all over SE Asia.
Visiting some carvers: Tisnu
We were taken to the house of Tisnu, a carver renowned for his sacred masks – including the Barong Ket, the Rangda, and more- by Judy Slattum, author of Masks of Bali: Spirits of an Ancient Drama.
We were able to hear more about his work, the processes of creating sacred mask and costumes, and purchase some of his non-sacred masks.
Pak Tisnu not only is an accomplished carver and dancer of a masks, but I believe he plays the gamelan as well. He is a former vice-chair of the University, too. We visited this talented man at his home, which is part of a palace compound in a village outside of Ubud.
Visiting some carvers: Tangguh
We also were able to visit a carver who lives just down the road from Pak Tisnu. The majority of the Balinese masks in the Museum of Masks are his work. His name is I Wayan Tangguh.
In addition to topeng, he creates masks that are part of the wayang wong tradition. His son and some apprentices were working on a large order when we dropped by.
This trip was funded in part by a professional development grant from RACC.