Mask-making with
Natural Materials

From 2015 to 2022 I focused on experimenting with natural materials, and over that time I developed several original maskmaking techniques. Although I no longer exclusively work with these materials, their textures and sustainablity continue to influence my current work.

The Project's Origin:

Oregon coast pigments

Over many years spent sitting indoors making masks and other art pieces from modern materials, I often found myself day-dreaming of wandering though wild lands, seeking creative inspiration within nature. And thus an idea began to form... Why not seek out such wild places, and make my art out there?

But my art at that time was so dependent on plastic-based products that I could not consider crafting it outside of an enclosed studio.

At Echoes in Time, 2018
Photo by Lauren Parker Photography

So I started thinking... What if my creative process became an act of collaboration with nature? What if my art was in fact made out of the land? But then it dawned on me... over three decades spent training and working professionally as an artist, I had not obtained the knowledge or tools to bring this idea to fruition.

This moment became a turning point in my life, and I spent the following seven years studying earth-based arts and crafts and nature skills.

I also started researching the mask and mumming traditions of my European ancestors. I made simple woven masks based on the Scottish and Irish straw mask traditions(1), adapting the methods to locally available cattail/bulrush leaves.

Three versions of the same mask over the years: 1) Neoprene. 2) Heat-formed plastic + paper mache. 3) Burlap + cellulose fiber + cornstarch bioplastic

I then found out about traditional European painted and embroidered mesh masks (1,2), originally crafted from loosely woven fabric, then later made from wire mesh(2). This gave me an idea to try making masks from recycled burlap coffee sacks. 

Now my ideas had expanded from using just "wild" materials to using modern biodegradable materials. I then recalled a "kitchen science" recipe for a cornstarch and glycerin-based bioplastic(3) that I realized could be used to stiffen the burlap, and my burlap and bioplastic mask-making method was born.

Since then I have also adapted my paper mache methods to use biodegradable paste and cellulose-based materials including recycled cardboard and reclaimed paper fiber. Natural paint remains the biggest challenge, for while I have had some great results with earth-based pigments, they are definitely more challenging, time consuming to work with, and delicate than acrylics. So for now, with my own work I have accepted a compromise: I will use synthetic paints, glues and finishes in the studio when a project requires it, but when I create art in nature I endeavor to use only natural and/or biodegradable materials.

One thing I have noticed is there is a particular aesthetic quality of work made with biodegradable materials that I feel actually invites integration with local pigments, plant materials, and natural fibers. I believe this has fascinating potential for future work (and workshops) on connection to place through the creation of place-based art, and ultimately in crafting a dialogue with nature through the creative process of mask-making. Which is exactly what the masked European mummers I was reading about were originally doing.

Visit my Workshops page for information on my burlap and bioplastic maskmaking class: "Natural Materials Maskmaking".

Visit my Tutorials page for burlap and bioplastic mask-making tutorials: "Basic burlap mask-making" part 1 and part 2.

Gallery of Masks from Natural Materials:

Indigo Jay, 2022

Reclaimed grocery bag and flour bag paper, brown paper tape, cornstarch paste. Painted with natural charcoal, iron oxide, home-grown Japanese indigo and calcium carbonate pigments using a linseed oil and methyl cellulose binder over a milk paint base-coat.

Natural Curly Masquerade, 2020

Following several months of exploring starch-based bioplastic as a potential mask-making material, I successfully replicated my 1999 Goblin Art Studio "Curly Masquerade" mask design* by combining the bioplastic with biodegradable cellulose fiber (recycled paper pulp).

The resultant material was pressed into one of my original plaster molds. Finished with natural pigments including calcium carbonate and charcoal.

*The original Curly Masquerade mask was cast from synthetic neoprene rubber and painted with acrylic paint. 

Big Baba Yaga, 2020

Paper mache (recycled paper and grocery bags), cottonwood bast fiber hair, and fig wood teeth. Painted with natural earth pigments using a hide glue binder.

You can learn about the making of this mask:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Tree Hobgoblin, 2020

Following several months of exploring starch-based bioplastic as a potential mask-making material, I successfully replicated my 1999 Goblin Art Studio "Tree Hobgoblin" mask design** using natural and biodegradable materials.

This variation of the mask was formed from recycled burlap over a plaster mold, then a top coat was applied using a custom bioplastic-based modeling compound made with recycled cellulose material. Painted with natural pigments using a hide glue binder.

Learn about the making of this mask HERE.

** The original Tree Goblin mask was cast from synthetic neoprene rubber and painted with acrylic paint.

Rustic Fox, 2019

Recycled coffee sack burlap with bioplastic starch shaped over an original plaster  mask form and reinforced with reclaimed copper wire. Painted with natural pigments using a methyl cellulose binder.

See the process of creating this mask HERE.

Forest Guardian, 2019

Reclaimed burlap stiffened with a basic starch mixture. Painted with natural pigments, stitched with cotton thread.

  1. Freger, Charles. Wilder Mann. Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, England. 2014.
  2. Hoedt, Axel. Once a Year. Steidl, Göttingen, Germany. 2013.
  3. Stark, Jordan. DIY Bio-plastics.