The Art & Science of Mask Making

By Kirk, Brian; Jefferies, Margaret | The Science Teacher, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Art & Science of Mask Making


Kirk, Brian, Jefferies, Margaret, The Science Teacher


Byline: Brian Kirk and Margaret Jefferies

Examples of masks created by students. The above mask incorporates imitation peacock feathers, starfish protrusions, jellyfish tentacles, a bird beak, and ivy for concealment-all attributes to help the "mask creature" traverse the fictional island of Gorff. The other masks incorporate replica sparrow wings and amphibian eyes (middle) and zebra stripes and shrimp eyes (top). Photos by Brian Kirk

Art, particularly observational drawing, plays an important role in science. Scientific illustrators combine science content knowledge, observation skills, and artistic ability. For example, through their drawings, artist naturalists such as John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson documented species of birds and other fauna and flora. For students, creating representational artwork helps develop observation skills and an appreciation of the diverse ways organisms have adapted to life on Earth.

In this article, we describe an interdisciplinary project that combines techniques and design elements of the visual arts with hands-on scientific exploration. For the project, students create masks (see pictures on opposite page) that exhibit attributes of animals observed at the Smithsonian Institution's Naturalist Center in Leesburg, Virginia. In the process, students develop an understanding of different animal species and learn how masks have been and are currently being used in different cultures. The unit typically takes at least eight class periods, which combine artwork with science content lessons, plus the two and a half hour field trip to the Naturalist Center for observations and research.

Starting in the classroom

The transformational mask unit begins in the art room where students observe photographs of masks from around the world and masks created by students in previous years. Classroom discussion focuses on the uses and history of masks, materials used to construct masks, and why animals are used as themes. In traditional cultures, the animal mask is a transformational object that enables the wearer to ceremonially become an animal by adopting its characteristics, which can include stealth, cunning, agility, flight, and intelligence. Masks are worn in hopes of acquiring information, conquering enemies, and predicting the future. Commonly, animals and various animal characteristics are used by many cultures in imagery. An example is the Pacific Northwest Native American totem pole, which may contain carved images of bears, ravens, or killer whales.

It is important for students to consider the mask as a component of a culture, not just as an art object. We use graphic organizers throughout the discussion to organize information about a culture's ceremonies and religion, technology and natural resources available to make the mask, symbolism and cultural styles, and the social or economic status of the person wearing the mask.

After the review on masks is complete, students read a handout that describes the transformational mask activity. Students learn from the handout that they will design a "mask creature" that incorporates animal attributes that will allow it to traverse a fictional island "Gorff" that has a variety of geological features and conditions (Figure 1). (Later in the activity, students write a story about how their creature's attributes help it to get across the island.)

Figure 1. Fictional island of Gorff.

The idea is that the mask creature can transform into different animals at various points during its trek across the island. For example, to get across the island, the mask at one point will need to cross the "Magna Chasm." For this, students might want to incorporate on their mask characteristics of some sort of animal that flies. At another point on the island, the mask creature must cross a large lake; therefore, students might include on their mask attributes of an animal that can submerge itself in water for a long period of time. …

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