behind the mask

When you are involved in the slow creative process, you get fairly used to the fact that things often don’t work out first time. I have lots of ideas, and very few of them work out or come to anything that you might call fruition. I try many things, and I throw an awful lot of ideas away. In general, I tend not to discuss or reveal such partial or discarded ideas here, as they can become projects I return to, niggle away at, and from which something interesting eventually emerges. But I sometimes think that it’s a shame that what you read about here is mostly what has been finished – because the things-in-process, the half-formed (or half-baked) ideas are really what I’m working with most of the time. And I certainly think that trying out many different things, and being comfortable when they don’t work out, is the key to my creative process.

Working on my Cadaver Exquisito with Pilar Obeso Sánchez – my Mexican collaborator – has certainly taken a long time and, from my end at least, has involved quite a few ideas which didn’t work out, particularly when creating my creature’s head/ mask. But over time, and after many discarded ideas, and many abandoned objects, my creature has eventually manifested itself, as you’ll soon see. So I thought I’d try to explain how my creature developed, through its key elements.

First there was the creature’s body, for which which my inspirations were costumes used in Mexican masked rituals (which continually mingle objects and symbols from a range of traditions and cultures in a particularly joyful kind of syncretism) and Pilar’s favourite pin-badge adorned denim jacket (which kind of did much the same thing).

Pilar’s jacket

Creatively interpreted by me, Pilar’s jacket would become a pair of dungarees / overalls, whose decoration would speak to many of the themes of our collaboration. There would be Harris Tweed, which we’d both seen being made in the Hebrides. There would be Scottish agate jewellery, whose Victorian popularity we’d discussed during our visit to Braemar. There would be mountains, connecting Scotland and Oaxaca. And there would be Mr Benn, a nostalgic figure from my childhood (whom I’d shared with Pilar) who captured the transformative and imaginative power of dressing up.

Mr Benn

The overalls would be connected to my body by a strap which was as long as Pilar was tall (both of us are quite wee). After learning about how practices of band weaving connected the textile traditions of Northern Europe to those of South America during our residency, I decided to hand-weave this strap.

I learned a few different techniques and styles of band weaving from the brilliant Belinda Rose, and, after spending several months weaving different braids and bands, I eventually wove my strap using a pick-up method on my new inkle loom.

I also had a strong, clear idea for my creature’s “top”, a kind of mash-up of the Scottish colourwork yoke sweater with the Mexican huipil.

I’d knit my Mexican-Scottish huipil-yoke in homage to Pilar’s everyday environs, designing it to echo the warm colours of her home in Mexico City, and the wee shady patio where she loved to sit.

Pilar’s patio in Mexico City

So far so good. My creature had a body and a top but lacked a head.

Pilar’s friends’ wedding, with masked bride, groom and guests

Pilar and I talked a lot about masks.

I read a lot about masks.

I thought a lot about masks.

I started making masks.

I attempted a couple of papier maché masks, layering up scraps of old issues of Private Eye and worn out Ordnance Survey maps of my part of Scotland. These masks were fine and they were certainly wearable, but I found their surface appearance aesthetically uninteresting. So I then tried my hand at sculpting a mask out of the kind of clay that’s used in classrooms. This mask had a pleasingly freaky appearance, but felt lopsided and heavy when worn . . then bits kept falling off, until the whole thing spectacularly disintegrated. So I then tried working with a different, lighter kind of clay, into which I’d embedded numerous glass eyes. This was an interesting idea, but it just didn’t look as good as I’d envisaged. My next attempt involved combining the glass eyes with some millinery felt and insulation tubing. I was hoping this construction might achieve a fantastical and weird appearance, but really it just looked kind of rubbish. So I reverted back to papier mache, and tried painting yet another kind of mask . . . but if there’s one thing I know about myself it is that I am not very good at either painting or drawing, when any degree of figurative representation is involved. The painted mask was probably my worst, and yet, it was perhaps beaten by my next attempt. I thought I’d be on safe ground with stranded colourwork, but the knitted gimp look was a bit too much, even for me.

Then suddenly, another kind of mask became the focus of worldwide attention. Masks were the subject of debate, they were things to be worn in public settings, to protect everyone from infection. Everyone was wearing masks, and many of us were making them too. Methods of, and patterns for, creating a wonderful range of masks proliferated, as the global making community collaborated in creating these simple pieces of wearable, functional design. I loved how handmade masks so rapidly expressed the creative energies of stitchers around the world, and how, in both their making and their wearing, they became emblems of human connection and solidarity. I was very happy to make and wear masks. But I grew heartily weary of everyone shouting at each other about “right” or “wrong” mask wearing (or wearers), and of seeing such masks come to symbolise human divisions as much as their connections.

A mask was key to my collaboration with Pilar, but it was not that kind of mask. I began to reflect upon what it might mean to make a mask of any kind at a time when such objects seemed to have acquired such a very limited range of global meanings. It occurred to me that, however little the pandemic had to do with my and Pilar’s creative collaboration, a masked element to our costume might lead it to invariably being read in that context. And this troubled me, because around that time, I was starting to feel a little tired of everyone frantically “responding” to the pandemic, especially when they were trying to wrest some sort of increasingly banal “creative” element from the experience of lockdown. I felt quite strongly, in fact, that what Pilar and I were doing together had absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic – and that it was very important that we tried to keep our shared creative work in a space that was separate from that situation. But I totally failed to consider that the fact that we were even trying to create work during that time meant that this could never be the case. Simply because we were collaborating during 2020, 2020 would set the terms of our collaboration. That this was unavoidably the case quickly became quite obvious.

Last Spring, Pilar suffered a family loss, left her job, travelled from Mexico City to Madrid, dealt with various lockdown situations, and began a new course of remote study on the other side of the world to her home. Here in Scotland I was absolutely fine, and my family and business were fine too, but there were many rapid and rather difficult changes to implement, as well as urgent situations to respond to and manage. Separated from her home context and materials, dealing with bereavement, Pilar was unable to work on our collaboration and, it was difficult, too, for me, to muster much creative inclination. I simply didn’t have the time or any creative headspace to think, with a fresh mind, about what my mask might mean or look like in this moment. And beyond Pilar and myself, venues were unable to open and creative organisations were dealing with a wide range of pressing issues. Submission deadlines were shifted, and planned exhibitions cancelled or postponed.

So my incomplete creature remained in its rather forlorn and headless state until a few weeks ago, when I returned to it with a couple of realisations. First, the fact that the creature had been developed during 2020 meant that this time, and the meanings of this time, would unavoidably be constitutive of the finished piece—and that was fine. Second, I saw on reflection that my numerous failed masks had been a classic case of what can be a common problem with me: one of overdetermination. I had read an awful lot about Mexican masks. I had done a lot of careful research, and spent an awful lot of time thinking about masks’ making and their meaning. I wanted the mask I made to not just be good, but really amazing. I had thought too much and had been trying far too hard.

So I reached for two techniques which generally work for me when I get creatively stuck. First, to try something simple, and second, to try something new.

The something simple was to return to some early ideas I’d had about the Burryman, wool, and pompoms . . .

The something new was to attempt making simple and brightly coloured woolly shapes through needle felting.

Have you ever tried needle felting? All I can say is that stabbing wool batts with sharp needles is certainly an extremely satisfying way to spend a few hours, here and there.

It also seems to be a pretty forgiving, and fairly easy craft for a total beginner to use to sculpt nice woolly shapes (I say this from my very limited and completely basic experience – the idea that you might create entire scenes or wee animals using this technique is to me astounding).

Anyway, after 18 months, several failed attempts, and a very long creative process, under the transformative magic of felted wool, the head of my creature has finally appeared.

I hope you’ve not minded my rather lengthy exploration of the things that worked, the things that didn’t work, and the things that temporarily scuppered or halted the creation of my creature’s head. I’ve learned a lot from the process of creating my Mexican-Scottish woolly-headed creature — about my tendency towards overdetermination, about my desire to control meaning (which is always impossible), about the importance of stepping away from something, and the necessity of returning to a project with fresh eyes, mind. . . . and hands.

Tomorrow the woolly-headed Carbeth Creature shall reveal itself!