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Cool Art Therapy Intervention #8: Mask Making

"Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." –Oscar Wilde

Masks are worn for performance, entertainment, disguise, concealment, or protection. They have been around since ancient times and have been used in ceremony, storytelling, and dramatic enactment. Making a mask invites you to explore the persona you reveal or conceal from the world. It's why it's Cool Art Therapy Intervention Number 8.

Mask making always reminds me of an experience of working with a teenage boy in an inpatient mental health clinic. The boy had a long history of physical and sexual assault and tortuous life with a drug-addicted parent. Not surprisingly, he had attachment, emotional, and cognitive challenges as a result of abuse and neglect. After several sessions with him, I learned that the story of the extraterrestrial character "Alien" was an obsession; he always carried a worn-out paperback version of the movie and was delighted to read his favorite sections to me whenever possible.

As a creative therapist, I try to reach my clients at a place of metaphor and imagination; for this adolescent, that place was his fixation on Alien and this metaphor led to my intervention. I suggested that we work on a life-size mask of the character out of paper, paste and chicken wire, a process that unfolded over several sessions. A set of food tongs became a moveable part that emerged from Alien's mouth to "capture" his victims. The boy wore the mask while he enacted his favorite scenes for me and I often impersonated the various characters that Alien encountered or destroyed. To make a long story short, this intervention led this adolescent to verbalize traumatic events and confront his feelings toward his neglectful parent for the first time in his life.

To me, masks are all about communication through the wearable image of a face. In art and drama, they are used for their expressive potential in enactment and ritual. Masks are a universal art form that generally evokes power, magic, and mystery for both those who wear them and their audience.

In art therapy, creating a mask from scratch or decorating a pre-made mask often leads to exploring one's persona. Persona actually is a word that derives from the Latin for "mask," but often refers to the practical and successful personality that we use most of the time in the workplace and social relationships. It's a bit like a facade that we start to develop in childhood when we get approval for behaving in certain ways. At the same time, we also learn to disguise and repress those features and traits that are not approved—negative characteristics such as anger, greed, envy, and jealousy. We also may repress any other aspects such as creativity or self-confidence if these qualities are not appreciated or affirmed.

Carl Gustav Jung wrote extensively about the concept of persona and the various ways it manifests itself. He also proposed that there is a dark side to the personality, well-know to the field of psychology as the shadow. It includes both repressed, instinctual feelings and untapped potential. To me, the shadow is not just the "evil" opponent of persona, but is also imagination and creativity left behind or forgotten because of sensible or good behavior.

Mask making is a popular art therapy intervention because it touches on many of Jung's concepts, including persona and shadow. Masks can bring to consciousness how we both see ourselves or what we fantasize we would like to be. Because a mask has an outside and an inside, I often ask clients to consider portraying "how others see you" on the outside of the mask and "how you really feel inside" on the reverse side of the mask. For individuals with addictions or a history of physical or sexual abuse, working with a therapist to explore persona and shadow in this way is a profound, revealing, and often personally liberating experience.

Finally, mask making is a good example of an art therapy intervention that invites the use of expressive therapies—the continuum of the arts [visual art, theater, dance, and music] in healing. Facilitated by a skilled therapist, it helps to initiate an imagination-driven exploration of the self through role-play, dramatic enactment, movement, or storytelling. Best of all, it is an approach that allows all the arts to meet in one place, making it both a very cool and powerful intervention.

If you missed the introduction to this series, I recommend that you read it to get the background for this post and learn more about the criteria for why this intervention is "cool."

@ 2010 Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., LPAT, LPCC.

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