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David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Working Behind the Mask

How making masks unmask the masked in prison

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde


Winston, a 34-year-old black man, had paroled from the prison psychiatric unit in which I worked, 6 months before. At the time, he seemed well stabilized and optimistic (some would say cocky) after spending 7 years down for a drug-motivated robbery. So, we were surprised when we received a call that he would be returning to our unit; he was back in prison for a parole violation, and had decompensated shortly after. He was exhibiting unstable and delusional behavior, i.e., smearing himself with feces, and maintained religious ramblings punctuated with “talking in tongues.”

Winston’s records indicated he was returned to prison for drug use after he “mouthed off” to his parole officer. He soon stabilized after receiving medication, and was allowed to participate in groups in order to help him get ready to parole again in two months. Because he received art therapy during his previous stay, he was placed in my group. I must confess, I was a bit wary of having him back in art therapy—he made light of the art making, and lately displayed out of control behavior. I found myself thinking, what could he possibly get out of this?

Making the Masks

“When one enters ‘concealment’ behind the mask, there is a paradoxical freeing of behavior…ultimately the transformation is revealing rather than concealing” (Larsen, 1990, p.236).

Making masks from plaster-soaked gauze shaped directly on one's face is illegal for its ability to conceal (apparently, if you make a mask that covers your face, and decorate it with feathers, color tissue paper, sprinkles and paint, you may look like you work there, and can walk right out the door). However, because of its strong therapeutic benefits, I felt it often advantageous to explore the art therapy group members' own concealments through this art directive. We worked around the limitation by relying on an old grade-school standby—making masks out of paper plates.

Winston, although superficial with previous art directives, responded well to this exercise—probably because he could [subconciously] relate to its symbolic significance. Mask making is, by definition, "superficial in the sense of creating a surface with the intent to cover” (Gussak, 1997, p.69)—a task he may have felt comfortable doing. He simultaneously put a mask on, while giving us a glimpse of what was underneath (please see the accompanying image). Winston covered his mask with tissue paper; there were no eyeholes, and the mouth was bound by a piece of black paper. He later admitted in an individual session to being frightened about paroling again, and getting in trouble for his mouth. As the mask seemed to reveal, he essentially wanted to close himself off from his surroundings and gag himself.

Winston's mask

In retrospect, it seems that Winston’s previous behavior—including talking in tongues—prevented him from saying something he might regret, and perhaps such fear manifested itself through his delusional behavior. He did not know how to safely express it otherwise; that is, until he made the mask. After this project, his attitude seemed to shift. Throughout his stay on our unit, he relied on the art therapy to express himself appropriately.

Six months after his parole, the unit received a letter from him indicating he was doing well. He sent an accompanying photo of him with his family--clean cut and smiling—that seemed to attest to this.

All inmates have a mask in place to survive. “In order to hide themselves from others in the dangerous environment, the inmates wear other faces, putting up…defenses to hide themselves” (Gussak, 1997, p.68). As mentioned in a previous post [this post can be found here], inmates often maintain defenses manifested through silence, aggression and dishonesty, making it difficult for a therapist to gain their trust. Thus, to succeed, rather than force these inmates to lower their defenses (which can be dangerous for the therapist and the inmates), a therapist needs to work behind the inmate’s mask, in order to rebuild healthier egos. Art provides the therapist with the tools to leave this mask in place while allowing for safer and confidential expression.


Gussak, D. (1997). The ultimate hidden weapon: Art therapy and the compromise option In D. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing time: Art therapy in prisons and other correctional settings (pp. 59-74). Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Larsen, S. (1990). The mythic imagination: Your quest for meaning through personal mythology. New York, NY: Bantam Books


About the Author

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is a professor and chair-person for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and a clinical coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.