Natural & Reclaimed Materials

Mummer's hat from woven birch twigs,
bird mask from birch bark.
Echoes in Time mask night, July 2018.
Photo by Lauren Parker

Wildland Roots combines my 20 years of experience as a professional mask-maker with my more recent interest in earth-based arts and crafts and explorations of reclaimed and biodegradable art materials.

During my years of crafting masks from artificial materials in an Oregon basement, I would find myself day-dreaming of the wild lands around me: mossy old growth forests, rocky high deserts and windy beaches. And thus an idea began to form... Why not escape my subterranean studio and go to these places and make my art there?

A few of my earlier masks in a group show.
Bonnie Kahn Gallery, 2005

But because the masks I was making at that time were so dependent on unnatural materials, I realized I could not craft them outside of an indoor studio without significant contamination to the natural environment. Even my acrylic paints generated gallons of toxic brush water that had to be carefully disposed of.

Local earth pigments collected
for natural paint

So then I started thinking... What if I could make my art from the materials the land offered me? What if the creative process became an act of collaboration with nature? But then it dawned on me... over three decades of art-making, I had never been given the knowledge or tools to make this happen.

But I knew I no longer wished to pollute the land with my art. And so I closed my studio and spent the next 7 years studying (and eventually teaching) earth-based crafts and nature education.

Being an educator in nature was an amazing experience, and for a time my life as a mask-maker felt like a distant memory. But little did I know that the masks were simply biding their time, waiting until I was ready to return to them.

Woven cattail/bulrush masks with giant gourd puppet
Echoes in Time mask night, 2015

When a mask-themed ancestral skills event inspired me to learn about historic mask and mumming traditions, I started using basketry skills to weave simple masks based on the Scottish Skeklers and Irish Straw Boys. Then I learned about traditional painted and embroidered mesh masks (originally crafted from loosely woven fabric, then later made from wire mesh) of England and much of Europe. This gave me the idea to try mask-making with recycled burlap sized with natural laundry starch. Still, the material lacked the stiffness I was hoping for. 

I then remembered a recipe I had seen for a starch-based bioplastic made from simple ingredients that could be assembled in the kitchen. I mixed up a batch, brushed it onto a piece of burlap, and discovered I had a strong but biodegradable art medium that could make simple mesh masks... or be free-formed, shaped over a form, pressed inside a mold, and combined with all manner of different materials. It was surprisingly versatile, and with every mask I made with it I found I was able to push my creations closer to the level of detail I had previously obtained from synthetic materials.

From synthetic to natural:
3 versions of the tree goblin over the years

Because I believe in the enrichment of creativity and knowledge through skill-sharing, I offer tutorials for this burlap and bioplastic mask-making method, and will keep updating them as I make new discoveries and develop the process further. I hope that many visitors here will be inspired to try it!

I have also started adapting my paper mache experience to make use of biodegradable glue and natural pigments, and cellulose-based materials such as recycled cardboard and reclaimed paper fiber. (See some of my projects using these materials in my blog pages).

Since I recognize the vastness of the modern waste-steam and the need to divert materials away from landfills and into useful purposes, I include some mask-making methods that use reclaimed but non-biodegradable materials. And I also offer some techniques I consider "low-environmental impact" but made with easily found materials I hope will make mask-making accessible to just about anyone.

Deer mask from recycled and
low-impact materials

I will likely create masks for sale again some day, but for now I'm happy to share my skills with others-- and I really look forward to being able to teach mask-making classes in person again post-Quarantine.

Moni J Sears
January 2021