Mentor Artist Katy Bernheim worked with the Seventh Graders at Hall Middle School to transform 2-dimensional pieces of railroad board and a collection of beads, feathers, fabric, leather and paint into traditionally-inspired, 3-dimensional African masks.
The unit began with a slide show of traditional African masks. Along with the images, students discussed the many uses of masks in our culture, and how that compares to traditional, West African cultures. They looked at slides of masks celebrating coming of age rituals, death ceremonies and agricultural celebrations, among others. Students discussed ideas and symbols of beauty and power. The students noted patterns and colors, shapes and motifs.
With a collection of actual African masks, students were able to touch, see and hear (the raffia on one makes a lovely wooshing noise as it swirls through the air, like it would when it is danced). Armed with these images, ideas and experiences, the students launched into transforming the paper into large, vibrant masks.
Through a series of cuts, folds and overlaps, students were guided to shape the railroad board into mask-like shapes, securing them with staples and hot glue. They fastened raffia to the masks with girth hitches or staples. They used their knowledge and observations from the slides and masks to embellish their artwork with geometric patterns and a multitude of textures.
Students also faced the problems of form: “How can I make a cylindrical elephant trunk that bends, and attach it to the middle of the curved surface of the mask?” “How can I make a hat to sit on top of my mask?” “How can I keep the horns from flopping over?” “What is the best way to keep this on my face if I want most of the mask to rise up higher than the top of my head?”
For Katy, the magic of this project lies in the transformation from 2-D to 3-D, of students animatedly affixing embellishments to their masks and discussing what kind of character their mask will be, of active engagement in the subject matter. One student cried, “Now I get it!” For Katy, that said it all.