The Mask Project
By Robert Ross



While speaking to a friend one day, the late Janice Joplin was quoted as saying: “I’ve got to go upstairs and put  on Janice, I have her in a box.” Of course, she was referring to her persona — feathers, beads, hats and jewelry. Her mask, you might say.

We’re surrounded by masks — they’re everywhere. Some masks stare back at us as though they’re withholding secrets, like the burial masks of the ancient Egyptians. Some just hold our attention as we gaze at these face-like objects,  decorating a wall. We turn on the T.V. or flip through a magazine and see masks worn at  Mardi Gras celebrations. In October, our children (and some adults) adorn themselves with Halloween masks. And at the local store opening or neighborhood party we’re likely to see a clown, decorated in a clown’s mask, making his or her rounds.

A mask can be as innocent as a caricature of a cartoon hero worn by a child, or it may represent something that at times, is difficult to define — something that may border on the mystical or spiritual, as the voodoo masks of Haiti. Whatever it is about masks and mask making, people find them intriguing.

The Mask
Making a mold of one’s own face is the beginning of a process in creating a mask, a process with which Ruth Dorn is familiar. About twelve years ago, Ruth Dorn was in a women’s support group. As an exercise, one day  the group decided they would go around the room and share their dreams — what they wanted to do with their lives. One woman wanted to teach dance, so she taught the group belly dancing. Ruth shared that she wanted to teach art. She had a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Hawaii and had worked in the costume department at the Old Globe theater in San Diego. So she had a friend come in from the Old Globe theater and teach the group how to make masks. The blank masks needed embellishment so the group utilized Ruth’s art supplies and decorated the masks. Word spread, and soon The Mask Project was born.

The Mask Project
The Mask Project is, according to Dorn “an artistic endeavor, which encourages creativity through group interaction and self exploration. By the time the participants are done making a mask, they have a finished art creation, and more often than not, have gained psychological insights about themselves.”

The Mask Project, as it exists today, is divided into four or five workshop sessions, depending on the group Dorn is working with. Throughout the entire process, Dorn relies on the principles presented in the book The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. In the first session, as in all of the sessions, the meeting begins with an exercise that allows the participants to examine themselves. For example, the session may begin with guided imagery, or the use of the Native American Medicine Wheel to encourage the flow of images, memories and thoughts.

Afterwards, the initial  mask or mold of one’s face is created using plaster gauze. The mold dries in the following days and is reinforced at home with a hardening substance. During session two, mask making options are examined and ideas for garnering inspiration are discussed. Session three (or four, depending on the group) is decorating day.  

The group I participated in met at Dorn’s house for a day of food, fun, and a lot of hands-on work. Dorn has, over the years, collected items from feathers to jewelry for mask-making purposes and turned her garage into an artist’s supply store. It’s during decorating day that Dorn and her assistant have an opportunity to offer suggestions and insights for those mask makers who may get bogged down in the nuts and bolts of decorating a mask.

The last session of the Mask Project is in many ways the most important. After  decorating day, the participants go home and have an opportunity to put the final touches on their masks. The participants are also asked to write about their masks. The writing may be in the form of a poem or short verse. During the last session, or “completion day” as Dorn calls it, participants share their mask in a group setting and read aloud what they’ve written. It is during this last session that the Mask Project borders on a unique form of therapy, where tears, laughter, hugs and insights blend together in what one participant described as “a profound experience.”

Masks and Healing
The Mask Project is especially helpful for those facing health challenges. “Creativity and healing are related” states Dorn. “In these mask-making sessions, we begin to listen to the part of us that is unconscious. To express what is true for us, both verbally and in physical form, is powerful and healing. The mask represents what is inside coming out.”

D.W. was diagnosed with lung cancer eleven days after she turned 50. As painful as it was to find out she had cancer, for D.W. is was especially traumatic, as this was her third bout with cancer. After she had her lung removed, to cope, she participated in a cancer support group at the Wellness Community in San Diego. It was through the Wellness Community that she discovered The Mask Project.

The Mask Project was particularly rewarding for D.W.  According to her, “When I took the class, I was very raw and fully expecting to die. I had no reason to think that I would live more than a year or two. Normally I’m a very private person who is not in touch with inner emotions. Because of where I was health-wise, however, all of my feelings were on the surface. I appreciated the intense closeness and camaraderie The Mask Project offered.” D.W.’s feelings about the Mask Project were common to many.  “The entire project was cathartic” she states.

Latte and Insights
Weeks after completing The Mask Project myself, I had an opportunity to sit down with Ruth Dorn at a local coffee shop and talk with her about her work. There were questions that needed answers.

For me, creating a mask had been a rewarding experience, rewarding yet puzzling.  One would think that making a mask would be a fairly straightforward project, and yet it wasn’t. The experience went further than I expected. My mask completed, hanging on the wall of my office, I was struck by the dreamlike quality it conveyed.  There was something eerie about looking at my face protruding from the surface of a guitar (the theme I chose for my mask), something indefinable. I got a strange sense that it was trying to talk to me, trying to tell me something. As we talked over coffee, I explored the subject, using words like spiritual and mystical, hoping to prompt an explanation. Soon,  Dorn helped to clarify my thoughts. “Making a mask is kind of like a dream — you learn from it — you get new information, new insights. A dream in physical form, rather than thought  form.”

During my experience in The Mask Project I also found myself thinking back to early childhood experiences in the area of creativity. In many instances these were less than positive. Some in fact, were sad. “Many people are shamed early on in their lives around art work” Dorn explained. “A child may come home with a picture of a girl on a horse and the parent says that really doesn’t look like a horse and redraws it. Children carry  these feelings of artistic inadequacy with them throughout their lives.”

Dorn continued “It is common to hear participants in the Mask Project say ‘I know that everybody else will be able to make a beautiful mask, everybody else will be artistic, but I won’t.’  This is a theme I hear over and over.” When asked what effect the Mask Project has had on participants, Dorn states “A result of participating in the Mask Project is that people believe in themselves, both emotionally, and spiritually as artistic and creative beings.”

When asked about her goals for the Mask Project, Dorn responds “I’d like to expand it, by offering it to additional survivor’s groups. I’d also like to bring the Mask Project to various groups and settings throughout the country.”  The Mask Project is currently offered to both survivor groups and interested individuals in the San Diego area.

For further information about the Mask Project, Ruth Dorn can be reached at (619) 283-5303 or by
e-mail at 

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at 

Copyright 2002 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved  

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