Fox mask


Schools are now in session, and once again Social Studies teachers are wondering how to get their students to remember the many different peoples that are too often lumped together as ‘Asian’ or ‘African’ or ‘First Nations/Native American’. English teachers are hunting for a new way to engage students in discussions of The Odyssey or The Iliad or any Greek plays or legends. Theatre teachers are adapting a folk tale……. and everyone’s budget has been cut. Masks are a wonderful way to discover differences in cultural perspectives, character nuances, and the ideas of subtext and implication. But what if you are prohibited from ordering art supplies? Well Ta DAA! Enter Manila Folder Masks. Made almost entirely out of Office Supplies!!! Contact me if you want the accompanying how-to in comic-book form.

Dragon in processManila Folder Mask: What is it? 
Believe it or not, Manila Folders have different properties than any other paper product, including card stock and oak tag, which they resemble. They are more pliable, more resilient, and more durable, and can take and hold more shapes than any other paper product. I STRONGLY recommend to group leaders or anyone wanting to lead students on this venture to experiment with this marvelous stuff first, and really listen to what it is telling you. Make curls, make cupped leaves, make springs and foldy sproings or bridges. Cut slits on an angle and bend them open… The picture on the left is a Dragon I am making right now!

What are the pros and cons of using it?


*So many teachers cannot order “art supplies”. Luckily, these are OFFICE supplies. Plus, it’s very cheap!

*You can make them REALLY BIG (I made a 3.5 foot-long dragon’s head complete with hinged jaw with folders, staples, and brass paper fasteners)!

*You can do it without any liquids, and the ‘waste’ materials are all recyclable!

*Materials do not need to be new—used works fine.

*It’s stronger and longer-lasting than papier mache.

*Anyone can do it. Children as young as 4 and as young as 84 have had delightful experiences making manila folder masks.


*Manila folders are an intriguing material. No matter what you do, it will be really cool. However, to be able to create what you want in any intricate or huge way, you really have to play with the material, listen to it, watch it behave, learn it. I personally think this is a “Pro” not a “Con”.

*Repeated sweat will ‘eat through’ the head band—so you put packing tape on the inside. Which, of course, means that it becomes cleanable. How cool is that?!?!?


Stage One: ‘Sculpting’ the form

Hol-Masks-09_cropThere are several basic models from which to ‘grow’ a manila-folder mask. I will outline the form that is simplest and lends itself to the most complex. In this case, the ‘form’ is a supported shape of your head. First, create a band that snugly fits your head. You will need strips from the length and width of your manila folder to make one long enough to go around your head—make it about an inch or 1.5 inches wide. NOTE! When you staple the two pieces together, make sure the ‘head’ of the staple is on the inside and the ‘feet’ are on the outside, so the staples do not get caught in your hair or scratch your face. This is a general rule for this project.

Inside, beginning of a mask structure

After you have made the snug band, you need to create at least 2 cross braces over the top. I recommend making them run diagonally rather than perpendicularly; strength comes from mixing diagonals with right angles, and you’ll want the right angles for your ears/hair/crown, nose, horns etc. NOTE! It’s best NOT to trim the braces. Make them toooo long on purpose so you have an uncut strip to which you may attach other facial structures. Joints are the weakest spots, so we want to keep them to a minimum.

Stage Two: Building the Mask

At this stage, it is important to know what you are aiming for. Are you 6 years old and making a bird with a 4 inch beak? Are you an adult artist making a 2 foot long monster mask? It is important to know because you will now build the support frame and then portions of the outer part of the face. Wait—what? PORTIONS of the face?!?! YEP! Part of makes Manila folder masks so groovy is that you don’t need the whole outer part to be solid. The masks look awesome with spaces and they also look awesome with a ‘skin’ of light fabric, gauze, tissue paper, even toilet paper (tissue and toilet paper should be brushed with modge podge).

To build a support for your bird beak or giant monster face, use long slender strips with cross braces, tabs, folds, orgirl in mask she made curls as supports. Remember to connect strips at diagonals and right angles for maximum strength, to have the attachments be at different locations on the strips to prevent ‘joint weakness’, and to make strips as slender as a half-inch to make the structure light. I have included photos here to help show what I mean. In case you are interested, I have created a How-To booklet in a graphic novel format to show some manila folder mask-making techniques, and if you comment on this blog post, I will send it to you for free.

For cheeks, chins, ears, brows and so on, cut out trapezoids, teardrop/leaf shapes, fat rainbows, et cetera, and experiment with bending them to make a box or ‘canoe’ with ‘tabs’, pressing them into your palm to make a ‘cup’ with extra on the bottom for stapling, and so on. Folders LOVE to hold these shapes! Make them slightly larger than you need or with a tab or tail for attaching.

Go ahead and try something! Remember that all masks want to be super 3D. Add horns, hair, squiggles, nostrils….go crazy! One classroom of 4th graders with which I worked struggled with their first ‘test drive’ mask. They then absolutely fell in love with the stuff, and made masks for their play based on First Nations Tales, then made masks just for themselves! They loved it so much they gave up computer time!!!

Stage Three: Finishing up

manila-folder-mask-cover-300Inside: I would put a light layer of modgepodge (which functions differently than either glue or wallpaper paste) for strength and rigidity. You may need to put some packing tape on the inside to protect the mask from your sweat or to cover up the staple feet that you did on the inside by accident.

Outside: For a crisper hold, use modgepodge. One neat trick is to draw on the manila folder pieces with magic marker (MUCH better than soggy paint!) then put modge podge on (immediately for a more paint-like look, after a moment for a harder line look). Lay colored tissue paper over the markered area. Voila! It looks AWESOME through the tissue paper. To make the colored tissue paper even more translucent, put a light coat of modge podge on the outside of the tissue paper as well, once the underneath coating has dried. I strongly recommend experimenting on scraps first!

Hol-Masks-30Before launching into this week’s blogpost, I want to encourage you to support If you are reading this post on Shearwater Productions, please take a minute to go to the website, read/listen/explore, and become a supporter of this amazing grassroots organization.  If you are reading this on rabble, take a moment to read something else here and become a supporter!

And now, the blog.

I have given a bunch of mask-making workshops recently, with the adult cast of a show, for toddlers, in school settings, with tweens who have disabilities, and as part of a physical theatre performance at a museum. Each time, the group members have been surprised by the ‘newness’ of it, then cautious and worried about ‘getting it right’ as they begin, then delighted and enthusiastic as the masks/characters come into being in their hands. Too often, I think, such exploration of an alien landscape is relegated to an art class when it’s power and wonder would blossom in sooo many other circumstances. I hope this article encourages you to take on a mask-making moment with your community, classroom, eldercare folks, children, women’s group…… all of it!

I have made masks out of many materials and using a variety of techniques, from traditional (wood, leather, fabric, papier mache, feathers, etc) to 20th century (latex, neoprine/acetate) to my current favorites that others are now also choosing:

Fox mask


medical plastic (aquaplast) and believe it or not, manila folders. The Fox and the goofy pink/orange mask are examples of manila-folder masks, and I have made masks of horses and dragons that are almost three feet in length, and still light and strong. I am mad-CRAZY in love with this material!

I am deeply committed to manila-folder mask-making and spreading the love and use of this amazing material, because

  • it is so low cost (used folders are fine, and new ones can be had very very cheaply) that even impoverished schools and arts programs can use them
  • there is no need for water, so no cost there, and can be used in drought/water rationed areas
  • materials and by-products are all non-toxic, recyclable and mostly compostable
  • sooooooo easy to clean up
  • making masks like this involves creative problem-solving, geometric/architectural thinking, and artistic process!

This begs the question, why mask-making workshops? Why masks at all?

Arlecchino mask.Balinese people say that a good mask has ‘taksu’, it is a ‘spirit house’. I think that’s why people are drawn to masks—they seem to have a life of their own, their own passions, movements, intents, personalities. The better the mask, the more intensely we are excited, nervous, frightened, intrigued by them and by the idea of wearing them, performing them.

After all, why do people wear masks? To conceal identity…but that concealing is also a revealing, a taking on of a specific and ‘honed-in’ characteristics and implications. For example, the Lone Ranger and Zorro both wore simple black masks. Simple black masks, not red sequined masks with feathers or scuba masks or Scooby Doo ones. Simplicity of action and intent is part of what is implied by the mask, and the color and lack of distinguishing features implies something perhaps in the shadows. If you look at pictures of these two iconic masks, they might invoke a feeling of “strong” or “direct” as well.

Why else?

To play a specific, sharply defined character or one markedly different from oneself (as in Hallowe’en masks and Commedia dell ‘Arte masks); to play a part largely enough to be seen from farther away; to become a character beyond Mask from the Tempesthuman experience—gods, animals, trees, legendary creatures, even personified ideas. A mask also frees the self by demanding a higher level of commitment and releasing of self than other kinds of performing; the character of the mask is not only more sharply defined, but also more powerful, as the intents and emotions are amplified. Who the performer is becomes irrelevant—men, women, children of any ethnicity, language, and physical ability can become the character. It’s sort of the opposite of being a movie star, because the character has more life/importance than the performer, and different people can play the same part. How awesome is that? (Especially if the piece is political and the actor is arrested!)

There are more reasons, of course, but these are the main ones, and the ones that drew me to masked performing while growing up. I was deeply, almost pathologically shy as a child, constantly afraid of taking the wrong action, saying the wrong thing. Becoming an actor helped enormously, but exhilarating freedom came from discovering, ‘listening to’, and embodying a mask’s clear demands.

The process of making masks can be:

  • therapeutic
  • a means to connect more deeply to a cultural idea or animal legend (especially in an Elementary School Social studies or Language Arts curriculum)
  • a successful modality of expression for folks with language or writing challenges

Sky Chief's Daughter

The Arts and Arts Education are for everyone. I hope the spirits of these masks intrigue you enough to suggest a mask performance at a local school or a mask-making project as part of a social-studies unit or elder-care facility, or for yourself to take a secret afternoon and call forth a creature from your dreams, bringing it to life with the materials in your hands. And let me know if you need pointers; I have written a few “How-to” mask-making blogs, and I am happy to share!

I am often asked to teach classes, mentor, or give advice regarding mask making practices. I have posted about mask-making with Aquaplast and manila folders, and now….Voila! A blog about making masks using paper mache!

Papier Mache: What is it?

In a nutshell, Papier mache is a process in which strips of newspaper (usually) are dipped in a mixture of either wallpaper paste and water or glue and water, then laid over a sculpted mold.

What are the pros and cons of using it?

Pros: It’s very cheap! I prefer the glue/water mixture, which is not only inexpensive, but can be listed as an ‘office supply’ in some cases, instead of an ‘art supply’ if your budget is restricted. It’s also easy to use, and, provided 1) the features of the sculpted mold are distinct enough and 2) the strips are narrow enough (so they retain the molds details), anyone can be successful.

Cons: Because multiple layers are needed for the mask to be strong enough to perform in, it can take a loooong time to make a mask, as each layer must be dry before another layer can be added. Moreover, each layer added reduces the sharpness of the features and lines. It is also a very porous material, so should not be used for masks that many people will use. Papier mache masks crumble over time, and can’t take much abuse.


Stage One: Sculpting the form

Getting Ready: 
The easiest sculpting materials are playdoh, sculpy or traditional clay. If you use traditional clay, get the stuff that the pottery class has to throw away. You’ll need less of your sculpting material if you make a ‘base’ of newspaper and masking tape, a small bowl, or a half a styrofoam head (the kind used to display hats and wigs). If you use newspaper/tape or a bowl, you will need to remind your students to hold their face up to the mold to mark where the eyes, nose, and edges of the head need to be.

Remember that the features need to be large, defined, and extra specific. You will be applying several layers over them, and each one will ‘smooth out the landscape’, so to speak. Imagine laying several tablecloths overtop an elaborate centerpiece.

Stage Two: Laying on the papier mache

Choosing your materials: 
Newspaper is the most common choice. However, using industrial paper towels makes for a stronger layer. The towels also take the shape of the mold more easily and can be made to have more definition.

Rip your paper material into thin strips, dip into your glop (glue/water or wallpaper paste/water), run your fingers down the strip to remove the excess, and lay across sculpted form. Remember that a “layer” is not actually a single layer, it’s more like 2. Ish. The “ish” comes in because it’s important that the strips are not lined up–they need to be interlaced, and the interlacing pattern should not be repeated (there should be no ‘pattern’). Take advantage of the layering to actually sculpt the paper strips–you want to create as much definition as possible.

Make sure the layer is dry before adding the next one!

Stage Three: Finishing up

I like to do a final layer inside the mask of cloth dipped in the glop–it is strong, and smoother than paper on the face.

Gently sand the outside, then paint with a top coating of glop or a clear acrylic base. Now you’re ready to paint!

Best of luck, and you can always contact me with questions!

Starting Fresh:

It’s a cliché, but it is still true: Dream and Dream Big. If you could be any where in the world or do anything right this minute, or be paid for anything, what would it be? What are the qualities of that experience that make it so desirable? What are the steps, starting with that idea and working backwards, to making that dream or aspects of that dream a reality?

Two years ago, “Doing single-narrator audiobooks” was on my list. As we close out this year, it has become the fiscal stream in my life of many that generates the most income, and I have just moved out of the ‘it’s just unbelievably hard and stressful!!!’ stage into the ‘well, it’s hard and stressful, but I love it’ stage. I have also, for 10 years, yearned to return to Afghanistan. It looks as though 2013 will be the year that dream comes true. Dare to Dream.


The saying goes “Out with the Old, in with the New”, but sometimes we don’t need to actually get rid of something, we just need to repurpose it.


Landfill Harmonic

I was moved so much by this story, these people, this effort. Let me quote Anastasia Tsioulcas from NPR (full story here):

There’s an amazing video floating around YouTube that has brought a ray of sunshine to a very dark week for all of us. It’s the trailer for an upcoming documentary called Landfill Harmonic, which focuses on one remarkable group in Paraguay: an orchestra that plays instruments created out of literal trash, made lovingly for them by their community.

The young musicians all come from Cateura, a slum that’s built upon a landfill; the 2500 families who live there survive by separating garbage for recycling. A 2010 UNICEF report about this slum notes that more than 1500 tons of solid waste arrives each day. Illiteracy is rampant there, and Cateura’s youngest inhabitants are often the ones responsible for collecting and reselling the garbage. The water supply is very dangerously polluted; on rainy days, the town floods with contaminated water.

Here’s a link to a trailer for the Documentary.


Save that tissue paper!  

.and file folders, bangles, bits of ribbon, etc for your Manila Folder masks

Letting Go

I hate to say this, but our lives and minutes and focus and stressors are VALUABLE RESOURCES. Use them wisely. Although there are many ways to spend these resources and many people, projects, and organizations clamoring for them, these, like all other resources, are LIMITED. Spend them where you personally will be at your best—wasting them on things where you are NOT at your best is disrespectful

* to your resources,

* to the project (somebody else has a different ‘best’ than you, and you have possibly deprived them of that opportunity by taking their moment and filling it with your ‘not my best skill or favoritest thing’)

* to some other thing where your favoritest bestest shiniest lovingest happiest self belongs instead.

Be strict in your evaluation of the expenditure of these resources! If you need some guidelines, I suggested some in an earlier blog, “Biz and Art”.

Happy New Year, everyone.

I am typing this from the set of a small film version of “Riders to the Sea”, that rich Irish play by Synge written in 1904. As a result of this project, I have been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about Ireland, Irish history, and deeply held cultural beliefs and values… and realizing that despite my readings and visits and conversations, my deeper connections and understandings arise out of a mask project I did there, working with an artist/historian as a mentor, and spending a great deal of time trying to capture’ the spirits of the beings in the stories in the masks I made. 12 years later, these masks in turn are being used by children in a mask-making and performance class, and it is wondrous to see them spring to life once more.

How can masks live so long and be used by many people without posing a health risk? They are made of Aquaplast. This blog, therefore, is devoted to Mask-Making Tips with a focus on Aquaplast. For tips specific to making masks with paper maché (or papier maché) or manila folders, check out the earlier mask-making blogs!

 ARTS ADVOCATING MOMENT: recent research on the impact of an arts-rich learning environment on the academic success of Youth at Risk shows that test scores, GPA, and enrollment in upper-level classes is increased, and the impact on graduation is to increase likelihood by 5 TIMES. Here’s the link:

So go for it!!!

Aquaplast: What is it?

Aquaplast is a medical plastic that becomes pliable when immersed in boiling (or near-boiling) water. It comes in different types, each of which has different shaping/molding properties. It’s made by Sammons Preston Rolyan, and can be purchased online from any large medical company (like Patterson Medical or Sears or MedexSupply).


What are the pros and cons of using it?

Pros: There are two biggies (and a couple of “smallies”). One, it is an ideal material if you are looking to build a permanent collection. The plastic is durable and hardy, can sustain being dropped or even sat upon by accident, and if properly cared for, can be beautiful and useful for decades. Performers love masks with ‘personal’ histories! Two, these plastics can be cleaned. That means that people can safely share a mask, which is critical for schools and universities. Small advantages are 1) heating and molding the plastic goes very very quickly. It cools in less than a minute! If you have 2 or 3 heated water stations, an entire class can complete the ‘work in plastic’ stage in 40 minutes; 2) with a couple of the types of Aquaplast, you can toss the plastic back into the water if you messed it up and have another go at it; 3) given samples/scraps to experiment with in advance, students can create extraordinary things, as the material itself is a joy to work with.

Cons: 1) You need to be able to heat water safely, preferably in a lasagna pan; 2) It’s expensive, at least the up-front cost is. Over time, of course, you save money by not having to replace them.


Stage One: Sculpting the form

Getting Ready

The easiest sculpting material is traditional clay. Sculpy cannot withstand the heat of the boiled plastic. If you use traditional clay, get the stuff that the pottery class has to throw away. You’ll need less of your sculpting material if you make a ‘base’ of newspaper and masking tape, a small bowl, or a half a styrofoam head (the kind used to display hats and wigs). If you use newspaper/tape or a bowl, you will need to remind your students to hold their face up to the mold to mark where the eyes, nose, and edges of the head need to be.


Here’s the first tricky bit. If you are using the more resilient types (like the subset Aquaplast or Resilient T), they will smooth out your model, so you need to sculpt lager, clearly defined features. If you are using ProDrape or any of the Polymer subtypes, they will pick up every bump and wrinkle. The challenge is to make your mold as smooth as possible, with all the features (wrinkles, etc) specific and not too cluttered, although they can be small. The Aquaplast type that is the most “in the middle” is the type also called Aquaplast. IMPORTANT: Make your eyes either eye sockets or big and bulgy; you will be removing them and ned them to be like miniature ‘bowls’.

Stage Two: Laying on the plastic

Heat water in the electric tea kettle that you borrowed from the English Department’s office. Take a metal lasagna pan, and put it on your heat source. Put a little water in it, and fill about 2/3 full with your boiling teakettle water. Bring the first few sculpted forms and put on the table close to the lasagna pan (doesn’t have to be the same table as the water, just close by). Make sure each student has 2 partners—some of this plastic hardens in 10-20 seconds, and you need more than one set of hands!

Put the plastic in the water with a teeny corner peaking out. The plastic will take imprints (the polymer will even show a fingerprint) and fingers are best/least likely to damage your plastic, so that corner is your ‘grab tab’. You can use it to pull out and switch to a different grab tab so the whole plastic piece can be made pliable. The plastic doesn’t really get hot, oddly enough!

When the Aquaplast is clear (unless it’s one of the polymer types), pull it out, shake off the water very quickly, then stretch a bit and lay over the sculpted form. As quickly and as smoothly as possible, press the plastic onto the form. Be careful not to get fingernail marks in the plastic. You will need to pull/pinch up to define ridges, press down and into crevices, and continually use a smoothing/wiping motion to keep it smooth. For the more resilient forms, you will be able to actually mold the plastic, because it takes a little longer to cool (maybe 25 seconds) BUT you will also be fighting it to be sure it holds the form!

Stage Three: Finishing up

There are three things left to do before you can paint, all of which can go fairly quickly. They are Eyes, Edges, and Strap Holes.


Pull the mask from the sculpted form, take to a sink and wash off the clay, etc. in cold water. Then bring it back to your lasagna pan, which you have had to replenish with hot water. Look at the mask and maybe sketch the outline of the edges in pencil. Then choose a place to begin, and dip that part into the water to heat to almost transparent (do not heat fully). Use scissors to cut away the excess. Continue all the way around the mask. Then, go back to smooth out these rough edges by dipping them just barely into the heated/boiling water till just those edges are transparent. Smooth and round them with your fingers.


This is the most challenging, but also the most exciting—slightly changing the shape of the socket profoundly alters the masks’s expression!

Get a dipping cup (like a pyrex measuring cup) or your trusty tea kettle. Using your teakettle at a separate “station” is best, so you can avoid congestion. Holding the mask over a sink, basin, or other hotwater receptacle, pour a small amount into the eyesocket. Let it sit, then pour it out. Repeat 2 or 3 times, then apologize to the mask and poke a slit (horizontal) with a scissor into the cup of the eyesocket, now (hopefully) somewhat pliable. Carefully clip up and down about 1/8-1/5 of an inch. Pour more water in and through, and carefllu make the hole larger. Pour more water through, being sure to wedge in your finger so it doesn’t reseal! Heat the socket enough that you can create a good eyehole (make it larger than you think you need) using your fingers to mold the shape and roll/smooth the edges. Slightly pull out the bottom edge so it doesn’t poke you when you wear it; you can create a real ‘lid’ look which has the advantage of also being very comfortable!

Strap Holes

This is easy. Get a pencil and scissors. Open scissors and put one tip/blade into the boiling water for a moment or two. Then, grasp your mask and pick a spot near wear the temple might be, and apply the hot scissor vigorously, working it ‘swivelingly’ to create a hole. You will have to reheat your scissor once or twice. I usually do it so the scissor pokes through between two spread fingers that are supporting/pushing back from the inside. Now pour a bit of water through the hole and immediately poke your pencil through and leave it there while the hole cools. On the inside of your mask, squish the edges of the hole back down the pencil and flatten/smooth against the inside of the mask so they don’t poke you when you wear it. If they are already hard, dribble a little more hot water on them with the pencil still in place.

Repeat on the other side! You are now ready to paint—acrylics are best. On more quick tip: cut a separate piece of elastic for each side of the mask to tie behind your head to keep it in place on your face. Trying to perfectly size one piece is crazy-making!