Masks that reveal

Linden Hills artist took mask-making project around the world

LINDEN HILLS — Throughout history, masks have been used for protection or disguise, to conceal identity or to take on the identity of another.

With her latest project, a Linden Hills artist takes that concept of the mask and turns it on its head. In “Inside Out: Faces of Self,”
Barbara Cummard uses masks not to hide, but to reveal hidden sides of their wearers’ personalities.

Over the course of about two years, Cummard helped nearly 200 people in four countries make their own masks. She photographed creator and mask side-by-side and, with some digital stitching, created a 6-foot by 20-foot photographic mural as a record of the project.

That mural earned Cummard a place in “ICY: Clear Views 02” at Minnesota Center for Photography in Northeast. A version of the mural printed on a vinyl banner will hang in public spaces around Minneapolis.

“The way I started this whole thing is I had a big party for my community in the garden,” she said, referring to the yard of her home near Lake Calhoun. “I had probably 30 people in my garden, and I provided all the materials and we made masks.”

“It was amazing,” Cummard said, chuckling as she recalled that day in 2005.

Cummard, who studied graphic design and visual communication in her native England before moving to California in the 1980s, said the project grew out of a long “transformative period” in her life that began when she left the corporate world in 1992.

Using the camera as a tool for introspection was something that came naturally to her.

“Photography is really, for me, a reflection of something about me,” she said.

In between travel and volunteer work, Cummard completed photographic projects exploring gender issues and tattoo culture, subjects that reflected her interest in “people who are not part of the mainstream.”

When Cummard embarked on her mask project, she wanted to continue working with people on the margins of society.

She repeated her mask-making session with groups in New Zealand, England and Australia, including residents of a home for the elderly and a center for juvenile offenders. Each time the process was similar, beginning with what Cummard called a “council.”

“A council is a process by which you pull together a group of people and you create an intentional space in which everybody feels they can actually speak their truth, and you put out a question,” she explained.

It may sound a bit New Agey, but Cummard insisted it wasn’t a group therapy session.

“There wasn’t any expectation for any of them to be deeply introspective about what was going on, but they were asked the question,” she said. “They all answered it.”

The question Cummard had her participants reflect on was this: “How do you show up in the world?”

She asked them to think about how others perceived them and how they perceived themselves, and then transform those thoughts into a mask. Splitting up into pairs, they made casts of each other’s faces using plaster bandages. The dried plaster casts were then decorated with paint and other materials.

The final pieces were as different as their creators. Some were painted in mottled earth tones, others were as bright as Mardi Gras masks, trimmed in leaves and feathers.

“Some people knew what was on their masks [but] others didn’t have a clue,” Cummard said. “But it highlighted for them in some way that they had these other, inner aspects to themselves that maybe they didn’t show on their face on a regular basis.”

In the mask making, Cummard found a metaphor for the past decade of her own life, when photography was her tool for self-exploration.

“I am, at the end of it, left in awe at what has actually happened,” she said.

“Inside Out: Faces of Self” runs Feb. 16-–April 27 at Minnesota Center for Photography, 165 13th Ave. NE. www.mncp.org.