The Call of
Natural Materials

Over many years spent sitting in a basement, making masks and other art pieces from artificial materials, I often found myself day-dreaming... I imagined myself wandering though wild lands, enraptured with moss and tree and stone and sand--seeking creative inspiration within nature. And thus an idea began to form... Why not leave the studio, seek out such wild places, and make my art out there?

But my art at that time was so dependent on petroleum-based products that I realized I could not craft it outside of an enclosed studio without damage to the natural environment. Even my acrylic paints alone generated gallons of toxic brush water that had to be carefully disposed of.

Oregon coast pigments

So I started thinking... What if my creative process became an act of collaboration with nature? What if my masks and other pieces were 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.

But I knew that I no longer wished to pollute the world for the sake of art. And so I closed my studio and spent the next 7 years studying earth-based crafts and nature skills.

Photo by Jesse Ambrose, 2015

That was an amazing time and my life as a professional mask-maker started to feel like a distant memory. But the masks were simply biding their time, waiting until I was ready to return to them.

It started with a mask-themed event in the ancestral skills community, that inspired me to learn about the mask and mumming traditions of my European ancestors. I explored making simple woven masks based on the Scottish Skekler and Grølek, and Irish Straw Boy mask traditions(1), adapting the methods to locally available cattail/bulrush leaves.

I then came across some photos of some 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 the idea to try making masks from recycled and biodegradable burlap coffee sacks

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

Now that my ideas had expanded from using just "wild" materials to including the use of biodegradable materials, I remembered a recipe I had seen for a cornstarch-based bioplastic(3) that I though could stiffen the burlap, allowing for the creation of more dimensional masks.

The recipe used simple ingredients assembled in the kitchen, and when brushed onto a piece of burlap, it resulted in a strong and biodegradable art medium that wasn't just limited to simple mesh faces. It could be free-formed, shaped over a three-dimensional mask base or pressed inside a mold, or even be blended with a range of different cellulose-based materials materials to create sculpting compounds. And with each mask I made, I was able to push my creations closer to the level of detail I had only obtained previously with synthetic materials.

Because I believe in the enrichment of community creativity and knowledge through skill-sharing, I offer tutorials for these mask-making methods*.

I have also adapted my paper mache methods to use biodegradable glue, natural pigments, and biodegradable cellulose-based materials including recycled cardboard and reclaimed paper fiber.

Most of the materials shared in these methods should be easily found, which I hope will make mask-making accessible to just about anyone. I also hope this website might inspire others to take their art-making into the woods or other wild lands--or even just outside.

Moni J. Sears

September 2021

*Some tutorials and pieces documented in my studio notes do use reclaimed materials, as I recognize the vastness of the modern waste-steam and the need to divert materials away from landfills and into creative reuse.