Years ago, I facilitated a workshop on Mask-making for Emotional Expression at an art center. One of the class participants was a recent retiree named Nancy. Upon entering the workshop Nancy said to me, “I don’t know why I’m here. I’m not an artist. I’m not even sure I can do this.” Fear and doubt are something I often hear at the beginning of every expressive art workshop. Usually by the end of the workshop, no one can remember why they were ever afraid. So I said to Nancy, “You don’t have to be an artist to be here, you just have to want to let go and create.”

Class participants were provided with simple plastic face mask forms, as well as many options for decorating their masks such as colorful tissue paper, fabric, yarn, paints, and more. At the end of the workshop, everyone shared what they had made. 

Nancy had been quite vocal while making her mask, shredding tissue paper with periodic exclamations of “YES!” and attaching yarn as hair with a “You look so right!” Nancy’s mask was made entirely of red: red tissue paper, red paint, red yarn, decorative red heart bangles. 

When it was her turn, Nancy shared this story: for years, she had been looking forward to retirement and “doing nothing” but once retirement came she found herself depressed and grieving for the loss of daily contact with her co-workers, the daily discipline of someplace to go, the sense of organized purpose that being a book-keeper had provided.  

“It’s funny, I hate the color red but my whole mask is red, “said Nancy. “The minute I finished making it, it said ‘grief’ to me. Isn’t that weird. Until I made it, I didn’t realize I was feeling grief. I just thought I was bored because I was retired and needed something to do.”

Once Nancy named her feeling ‘grief’ she began the process of skillfully working with her grief in order to heal it. She contacted me months later to let me know that she had begun volunteering at a local organization that did “good work.” And she was happy.

As Nancy discovered through mask-making, our emotions are not always easy to identify, acknowledge or accept because we might have a fixed idea regarding what a certain experience is or means. Mask-making can help free us from the mental and emotional clutter of self-judgment, allowing us to see what is at the heart of our perception – and whether or not that perception is accurate or serving us well.   

Sometimes grief can feel like a journey without a road map. Although there is no ‘right’ way to grieve, a lack of cultural permission regarding the expressing of emotions can contribute to feelings of not ‘doing grief right’. Mask-making provides a powerful and relaxing outlet for emotional expression - a concrete visual representation of where you are currently at on the road to healing your loss, whether that sense of loss is due to retirement, unplanned unemployment, the death of a loved one, or restricted personal freedom due to covid-19 sheltering-in. 

Making Your Mask

Mask-making can be both a powerful and tension-releasing avenue for self-exploration and self-expression. Mask-making can be a way to allow unexpected sides of yourself to emerge, or embrace those parts of yourself you have yet to befriend. 

Types of Masks

There are a wide variety of approaches to mask-making. The type of mask you choose to make will depend on what you want to explore and express. Here are some ideas for your consideration:

Inner and out self mask. Decorate both sides of the mask: the outside is the face you show to the world; the inside represents the private you.

Duality mask. Express an inner conflict through your mask with a half-and-half, divided face. Inner conflict shows itself as a lack of consistency between what you feel and think or between what you say and do.

Feeling mask. Make a mask that expresses an emotion with which you are uncomfortable or find hard to trust; or express an emotion you would like to heal or release. Creating a feeling mask provides a way to explore the uncomfortable emotions that arise out of grief and loss. 

Fantasy mask. Create a mask conveying a part of yourself you would like to develop or the person you would like to become/be. Making a fantasy mask is an opportunity to temporarily take on a new persona as a way of improving your self-confidence. 

Supply List

All supplies can either be purchased at your local craft store or on-line; common household items such as magazine photos, crayons, markers, paper bags etc. can also be used. Let your imagination be your guide. 

Mask Form Options

Premade plastic face mask forms can be found at local or on-line craft stores 
Note: A dinner-size paper plate (a great children’s option) or a brown paper grocery store bag can also be used to make a mask by cutting out holes for the eyes and mouth. The below directions are for using a premade mask form; the directions can also be used as a general guideline for decorating any type of mask.  

Additional Supply Options

  • Glues: Mod podge glue for adhering paper, tissue paper or fabric scraps and light-weight items; a strong glue for adhering heavier decorative elements
  • A ½ inch paint brush to apply mod podge; other small paint brushes for applying paint 
  • To decorate the mask base: colored tissue, pieces of fabric, construction paper, magazine images, stickers  
  • To decorate the mask base – additional options: acrylic paints or color markers 
  • Finishing decorative elements:  trinkets, feathers, yarn, leaves etc. or any other item that appeals to you or has personal meaning

Decorating Your Premade Mask Form

There is no right or wrong way to decorate your mask. To decorate your mask form you can paint or use color makers directly on the mask form. To cover your mask with fabric, tissue paper or construction paper, follow these directions:

  1. Cut or tear tissue paper, construction paper or fabric into ½ inch by 2 inch strips. Then…
  2. Put a thin coat of mod podge on a section of your mask; place overlapping paper or fabric stripes on top of the mod podge and then apply more mod podge over the adhered stripes of paper or fabric. Do this until the entire mask is covered and coated with mod podge. 
  3. Either as the mask is drying or when the mask is dry, apply additional decorative elements such as paint, yarn, feathers or other trinkets and embellishments with either mod podge (light- weight items) or  a stronger glue (heavier items).

Now that your mask is complete:

  1. Name her/him. 
  2. Let your mask speak to you in the first person by answering the questions:

    “I am…"

    “I feel…"

    “I want…”

  3. Display your mask in a place where you can view it periodically over the next week or longer. Look at the above questions again; write on any topic that may come up. Honor the parts of you that this mask represents in any way that feels right.