Making A Mask

I wrote recently about masks and other faces in the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Depictions of faces are one of the most common types of visual art, because we humans find faces fascinating. They are so interesting that we often perceive faces in almost any combination of shapes, in any media. And I do mean any media, including Swiss cheese, bowling balls, and on bug bodies! This article in Mental Floss magazine says the phenomenon of seeing faces everywhere is called “pareidolia,” and it is a function of a healthy brain.

Human brains are exquisitely attuned to perceiving faces—in fact, there’s an entire region of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that is dedicated to it. Its functions are evident even from early childhood: Studies have shown that shortly after birth, babies display more interest in cartoon faces with properly placed features than in similar images where the features are scrambled.

The “face neurons” in people with healthy brains are so overactive that they scream FACE! in many situations where there are no actual faces to be found. Those sophisticated face-detection skills, combined with our brain’s compulsion to extract meaning from the sensory chaos that surrounds us, is why we see faces where there aren’t any. Typically these sightings are nothing more than our mind’s interpretation of visual data …

Well, fortunately I have a healthy brain and see faces in all kinds of things. One sighting was in a paper cutting I did late last year. While playing with the classic, six-sided snowflake method of cutting, I quickly drew and cut this:

Well, no, that’s not a face. (I’ll bet I could find one if I look.) But I did several more cuttings, and this simpler cut-out shouted FACE! to me.

For months this piece of paper has been floating around my studio, sometimes “put away” and sometimes in a stack of other paper cuttings on my counter. For months I’ve wanted to create a mask from it, but until recently I wasn’t really sure how to do that.

If you have spent time around children, you might know that both toddlers and teens can be cross a lot of the time. My theory is that it has a lot to do with them being ready in some ways for the things they want to do, but not fully capable in other ways. They get frustrated in their desires, which makes them cross. Though I haven’t been particularly cross about it, my desire to make a mask from the paper cutting didn’t match up with my skills. Now it does. 

I chose fabrics first and ended up with a completely different color set than I’d expected. That’s okay, right? With a background of brilliant gold-yellow, I chose a deep burgundy to provide the framing. I adhered Wonder-Under fusible web to the burgundy (and no, I don’t use affiliate links or payments, so this isn’t an ad.) Next I traced the shape on the web paper in pencil, and carefully cut it out with small, sharp, scissors. Click either picture to see detail better. 

As I chose the features for the mask — eyes, nose, teeth — I added them one at a time, using parchment paper as my pressing sheet. I pulled the paper away from the fusible on the burgundy mask framing, just for the part I was about to adhere. While fusing shapes together, I left as much of the fusible paper on the framing as I could, to maintain the stability of the shape and avoid damaging the fabric. With the paper removed from the feature (eyeball, for instance,) I placed it behind the framing and ON TOP of the pressing sheet, and pressed the edges together. After the fused pieces were cool, I could peel them away from the pressing sheet as one unit.

I continued to build the face, adding more features as I went, and then adhered the whole thing to the gold background fabric.

Now the features are adhered under the frame and the whole thing is pressed to the gold background. The background isn’t attached to the batik print around the edge.

In the last photo you see it lying on top of a piece of batik. I might frame it with that, or I might choose a different border arrangement. Those are decisions I haven’t made yet.

If you’d like to try six-pointed paper cut-outs, whether to make snowflakes or to make a mask, this is a reasonably good video of the process.

You should note, though, that my “snowflake” has six SIDES, while the video shows how to make a six-POINTED snowflake, with twelve sides. Here is my mask paper-cutting refolded into sixths, not twelfths as their snowflake is. 

The difference in construction is that they’ve folded the paper an extra time. While it allows a more intricate pattern, it’s also substantially harder to cut cleanly. Try playing with some plain copy paper to see what pleases you more.


32 thoughts on “Making A Mask

  1. shoreacres

    I was particularly interested in the research related to faces. It seems that cultural cues play a role, too. When I lived in Liberia, I was astounded the first time a Liberian grinned and said to me, “You white folks all look alike” — the complete reverse of what some white folks say about blacks. I did have trouble distinguishing one person from another for a while, until an anthropologist doing research there pointed out that we use different visual cues to distinguish people. For example, we Americans tend to look at hair and eye color, because those are some of the most significant differences. In Liberia, at least, foreheads and noses tended to be distinguishing clues. So interesting!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Very interesting. When I taught university juniors and seniors, many the young men looked alike to me. They were almost all white, same age, similar haircut, mostly tallish, and coloring not different enough to distinguish. In the old days I would make them take off their hats in class. !!! But in the 2010-12 period, I didn’t bother. And boy, when they wore their hats, I really had no idea! Thanks for taking a look.

  2. Jim R

    I remember when Pete, our whisky tour driver, stopped the van to point out the ‘fairy’ in the rocks next to the road. I don’t think he had been sipping a dram.

  3. Design Quest

    Thanks for sharing the research about how healthy brains are attuned to seeing faces. Fascinating! I saw old man winter grimacing, but now I’m seeing bunnies and squirrels juxtaposing into his eyebrows and moustache. Haven’t chuckled this much over breakfast in a while. Can’t wait for the next part of this story as it unfolds into your quilt creation.

  4. Kerry

    Fun fun fun. I see the bunnies making hair with a central parting and the squirrels make the eyes, nose and a very huge moustache. Ears are from tulip leaves. The masks are fun and individual – what an experiment!
    Years ago my son was playing hide and seek but started giggling – “funny man!” consisted of pine knots under the table.
    Haven’t made snowflakes since the children were small. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh yes, children are so good at seeing faces everywhere! Makes me smile to imagine your son so little that he could duck under the table while playing. Thanks, Kerry.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      When I realized that fabric would make those pointy teeth, I was pleased. But when I actually had it stuck in place, I thought it looked great! Pardon my immodesty! 🙂 Thanks!

  5. piecefulwendy

    I find it interesting how things can lay about our creative space, gently “nagging” at us, until it’s time to put them to work. I will enjoy watching your progress on the mask. I saw the face right away (although I saw bunnies in the first one – haha).

    1. Paula Hedges

      I now see the bunnies you saw. My first glance I saw 3 raccoon heads with the mouth and nose being made by the “bunnies”. Can you see the raccoons? Their heads are separated by the 3 tulips!

  6. Stacey Holley

    I love the paper cut outs. I haven’t done that in ages – maybe since my school days. I’ll have to try it. It’s amazing how different it looks in fabric, with all the mask details. If I’d seen the end product first, I’d never have known you started with a paper “snowflake.” Very cool. 😀


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