A few years ago I attended a mask making workshop in the Phoenix Gallery, in Brighton. Having trained a little with a Commedia dell’Arte crew in my youth, read Impro by Keith Johnstone and having worked the streets myself for five years, I thought I knew a thing or two about the drama of facial expression. The students attending the workshop were all adults, so there was no need to hold back for fear of upsetting anyone.
Whereas everyone else made happy smiling faces to fit over their own, I made my mask as featureless as possible. Every aspect of its face was little more than a perfunctory nod to the feature it described. The eye holes were pin pricks, the nose was small and straight, the mouth small and expressionless. I painted the whole thing yellow and then looked around for something to use as hair. I found a couple of straws, wrapped them in material, stuck one on the side of the forehead so that it stuck out like a dysfunctional dalek’s ray gun and the other on the side of one of the cheeks, so that it looked like an alien protusion. Finally, I painted the whole thing yellow and left it to dry.
The next workshop was intended to allow us to play theatre games with our masks. We would devise little plays and act them out with our masks on. However, when I arrived my mask wasn’t where I had left it! I looked around, puzzled, and finally asked the tutor where it had got to. “We had to hide it,” she explained, “because the next day we were holding a children’s workshop and it made them cry. All of them.” I apologised. She continued, “Actually, most of the adults also found it upsetting. People were asking who made it and asking for it to be removed. We put it in this cupboard but it’s not there now. I heard someone this morning say that they’ve removed it and destroyed it, they said it was evil.“
Without a photograph, it is hard to explain quite how frightening a bland face really can be. All the same, it was my creation and I had been looking forward to working with it in the pursuit of dramatic enlightenment. How was I to engage in the theatrical exercises now? I wasn’t. I was given a refund and told that, for me, the art class was over.
Since then I’ve attended the odd art workshop here and there but always with a sense of foreboding. Would the teacher destroy my work before it was finished? I know I’m in good company, plenty of great artists have found their work suppressed by people in authority, but my sculptural art isn’t great, it is ugly, cold and full of despair. It’ll never reach out to anyone and teach them something about the human spirit. I have learnt my lesson though. If you want to be truly creative, you have to strike out on your own and be prepared to upset people along the way.