For most, a thesis is the culmination of years of study, proof of all of the tireless work you have put in over the years. My thesis is a little different. I chose to take the opportunity of doing a thesis as a chance to learn more about materials I felt I needed to learn more about. I have a great interest in costume crafts as well as traditional costume making, but I did not know how to use some very key materials in a craft shop. I have always been fascinated by thermoplastics, but was usually too busy sewing to be learning how to use them, so I decided to make them the heart of my thesis. In a way, I threw myself into the frying pan as a test to see how I would fare before entering the job market again. This whole thesis was based on the premise “I’m pretty sure I can do that,” and then trying to do it. In this thesis I have synthesized information from many different sources and adapted it to what my needs are. In testing myself I now feel confident I could walk into any craft room and figure out what I need to do. While my thesis focuses on Worbla, Foam Clay, Wonderflex, Fosshape, TranspArt and leather, in learning how to make these masks I have learned that there is no limit to what I can learn and figure out. I am glad that the masks look great, but I am more pleased that somehow, during a pandemic, in a living room with wall to wall carpets and two cats I was able to take flat materials and turn them into three-dimensional transformational costume pieces.
The following is the best way I could think to lay all of this information out. The rest of the introduction discusses the beginning of project, after that I have divided the work up into the materials I used and a painting section. They are presented in the order I first worked on them and meant to be read way. While I am presenting them separated I was often working on several at a time which was both fun and frustrating. I found if I worked on 3-4 different ones in a single day I was very tired by the end of the day, working on 1-2 was far more successful in terms of brain power. I tried my best to convey the many thoughts that were going through my brain as I did this thesis. For the most part I was my own designer, teacher and crafter, which was exhausting. I longed for actual instruction a lot of the time, not to mention missing having others around to discuss the best methods. I did take pictures and get feedback from teachers and from fellow students, but a picture (and the subsequent waiting for a response) just isn't the same as being in a room with someone.
As this website is set up in sections of particular subject matter, I would like to continue to be non-traditional and begin with my conclusion. I made many mistakes in this process, but I also made many discoveries. While my final products look good, there is work that could have been done better on several of them. Luckily for me these aren't really going on stage and only served as vehicles for my education, which is what it's all about, after all. As far as doing a real test of all of these materials, I did OK, but the mask was honestly too complicated for me to focus on just testing materials. If this was really only about the materials I would have made an army of small samples; making a small shape out of every material, using different glues on every material, applying different paints to every material and so on. But my thesis couldn't just be little tests, I am a costume maker and I needed to make a costume piece. If I had picked a simpler item to make it may have been better as it would've allowed for more time for experimentation. All that being said, I learned precious information while doing this thesis, information that will undoubtedly help me in the real world. I now feel confident to work with many odd materials, glues, tools and paints, and for that I consider this thesis a success.
In addition to this website I have also created a reference chart, seen below. It is downloadable for easier reading and convenience. But please keep in mind I am not the ultimate expert, this is just what I discovered.
The first step I had was to collect lots of information. There are a lot of crazy materials out there, I needed to know what they are and what they were for. After some preliminary research and discussion with my adviser, Ellen Bredehoft, I decided on Worbla, TranspArt, Fosshape, Wonderflex and Variform. I had thought about leather but it wasn’t until later that I felt confident enough to do it. I am not a master in any of these materials and I knew I first needed to speak with people who are. This thesis was always going to be me experimenting on my own, but it is always important to research and hear from those who know more than me. Most crafts do not have one correct way to do them. People learn to work with materials based on the tools and knowledge they have as well as the problem in front of them. I wanted to hear as many ways as possible to decide which techniques I would choose based on the project given.
I joined a group on facebook a few years back called Costume Crafts Artisans and thought it would be the best place to start with my research. I made a post asking two questions; what pieces should I make (at the time I was considering Titus Andronicus’s prosthetic) and would anyone be willing to let me interview them. I had lots of people respond that I ought to do Bottom’s head, but this felt like the most typical and boring choice. I wanted to do something that would stand out in my portfolio and I already had two Midsummer related headpieces. I was intrigued by one of the suggestions that I should do masks as they can be wildly different and deal with weight and comfort and have interesting sculpts. This sounded like a good route to go down. I started searching for sets of masks.
I had originally intended to take one mask design and then make it out of the different materials but fell in love with the idea of having six excellent masks that were different but related. I didn’t want them to be commedia d’ell arte masks or greek chorus masks because again, I wanted something more unusual. I had recently had an internship at Jim Henson Studios and my boss had shown me renderings and photos from shooting the ballroom scene from Labyrinth and it was lingering in my mind. I watched the scene and decided I would take the masks from there. I went through the scene shot by shot and took screenshots of any masks I found interesting. I found some masks were used more than others and therefore had better shots from different angles, so out of those masks I chose six that I felt had unique challenges to address.
I then contacted those who offered to be interviewed, as well as a couple others to set up times to speak with them on zoom. I prepared slides with the screenshots of the masks as well as a list of questions I wanted to make sure to hit in our discussion. Doing the interviews was lots of fun. I was very nervous before each one as I have always struggled with phone calls, and zoom gives me more anxiety than I ever expected a social activity would, but once I was in conversation with my interviewees it was always really nice. Most interviews were about an hour long, with some going even longer. Everyone was extremely friendly and many even sent follow-up emails describing other techniques they might use or additional information to questions I had asked. I asked them general questions about the job and then shared my screen to show them the images I had of the different masks and went through them one by one and talked about different approaches. With all except one I was able to record so I didn’t take notes during the time and instead just absorbed.
In general, I learned that everyone has very different methods of working. The most interesting was how each person chose to approach The Goblin King’s long forward-leaning horns. Each person had a unique way of coming to the problem of weight and the length away from the body (as the farther away something gets from the body, the trickier it becomes to control). I would often suggest other ways of doing something to see what they thought about that technique and usually the artisan would think for a second and conclude that that would also probably work, it’s just not how they would do it. Occasionally one would say something like “I have never thought about using the material that way!” which is both exciting and frustrating. There doesn’t seem to be any unified thought on how to work with all of these non-traditional materials. This can be great in that the maker’s creativity and personal style can help them to figure out the best way for them to work, but there is also a difficulty in communicating about such materials when everyone comes from such different viewpoints. One thing most did agree on was that Variform is really only used for areas that need ventilation or need to be see through and that it’s very scratchy and would be better to keep off my list, so I removed it as an option.
I ended each interview asking if they had any advice for someone like me going into the workforce. I was very happy to hear that every single one of them thought getting a job would be easy (once work returns to normal) as there simply are not enough people who want to do this work. But it was also a sad moment in many of the interviews as we discussed the inevitable truth of our destroyed industry. The people I spoke with were all very experienced and had worked as craft artisans for many years, but with one exception, the only ones who were still working were the teachers. Several also expressed how nice it was to talk shop, as most have been unable to be in rooms together with other makers. I was grateful that they had the time to speak to me, but it was a sobering reminder of the scary situation ahead of me after graduating.
The transition from research to the actual making of the masks was very rough. I tried to plan out each mask and as I did I realized I had many more questions than I had answers. It wasn’t long before I felt completely out of my league and worried that I had yet again bitten off more than I could chew. To add to this stress my other classes were coming to a head in terms of work and I didn’t feel I had the brain capacity to handle the experimental process of my thesis. Thankfully, Ellen is wonderful and reasonable and shifted my class work and allowed me to drop a class so that I could spend all of my energy and focus on my thesis. Once I cleared my mind of other work and converted my living room from a temporary sewing studio to a temporary craft studio I felt I was finally able to tackle the ever mounting question marks of my thesis.
It became clear to me that one of the most stressful elements of this project was the design. I had six unique masks, some with more detailed images than others, but whether I had a great screenshot or not I needed to understand what each mask’s design actually was. Mio Guibernic, who I interviewed, said it was very important that I sketch out each mask so that I can make definitive decisions. I agreed that he was right, and I set about trying to do so. As I began I saw how many decisions there were to make on every single mask, so many design decisions to be made before even thinking about how to make it. I didn’t feel designing masks was the best use of my time as I happily concede that right to a costume designer in most cases, so I reverted back to my original plan of making one design out of all the different materials. This was maybe the best decision I made in this entire process. By not shifting the design with each material I was able to compare the materials with the exact same parameters, plus become more and more precise with my work as I got used to doing the same shapes over and over again. I picked a mask out of the six that I felt had enough challenges in it to discover things about the materials - soft curves and steep angles, surface detail, interesting design and horns. I wanted to have horns because it would give me a chance to make a closed shape as well as an opportunity to see how the materials fuse or attach to each other. I am fairly sure I could have included the horns in my original clay mold and stretched most of these materials in one piece, but working the horns in each case was extremely beneficial in terms of understanding the material more.
To begin, I had to collect all of the tools, materials and other things needed to make all six masks and bring them home and somehow make some order. I put a drop cloth down on top of my wall-to-wall carpeted floor, brought a fire extinguisher to my workspace and hoped for the best. It took many trips in and out of the school as well as handoffs from staff members of items in the craft room.
I cannot really overstate how much more difficult this whole process was because of being in this bizarre time. While I was given access and keys to all the rooms I could want, the fact that campus shut down a few times coupled with my lack of planning ability to reserve rooms in advance meant I needed to rely on working at home. I am lucky in that I have a pretty sizable space with two tables and an ironing board up as well as one shelving unit. There was organization at first, but as the samples grew and more materials and niche tools were collected it became very hard to keep everything straight.
Much as I had experienced while using my living room as a sewing studio, it needed to be cleaned every day, sometimes twice a day depending on how many times I switched between different materials and their assorted needs. I also had to be very aware of the multiple heating elements I was using, I usually had more than one plugged in and I had concerns for myself and my two cats. I did burn myself twice, I don’t know if the environment would’ve helped that much, I expected at least one burn working with so many hot things. I will say OSHA would have shut me down as fast as they could.
Once I had what I thought I needed (forget the fact that I had to order something online nearly every day) I finally got to work. My first task was to build up a clay mold of the mask I wanted to make. After doing some detective work and making guesses I bought some air-drying clay and started sculpting the mask. It was only once I had the clay in my hand that it occurred to me that I had never done anything like this before. I couldn’t remember the last time I had even touched clay (I hate how it makes my hands feel, so I’ve always avoided it) let alone do something like sculpt a face. This would become a theme of this thesis - “I have never done this, but I’m pretty sure I can.” I was not panicked about having never sculpted, I assumed it would make sense and it did. I have never really enjoyed drawing but I’ve always been good with making things with my hands so I just figured I would be able to. I am grateful that it was true otherwise this entire project would’ve started badly.
I covered the entire face with clay and built up the features I saw in the mask. As I formed the tiny little nose (amazed that I could since drawing one is a mystery to me) I saw the classic Henson-ness appear in front of me. This was not the first time I had noticed that one of the signature looks of Henson creatures is that the nose is squeezed up very high on the face, but in making it I felt like I was learning secrets in how the looks come to be.
After doing a few tests I realized that building up the clay all over the face made it really difficult for it to fit a real person (more on that in the Worbla section) so I redid the clay, building up only the areas that stick out from the face and leaving the rest without clay. This made for a much better fit. I also added a clay wall an inch or so away from where the mask was meant to end all the way around it as I wanted to have something to pin into in case I had the need. There were many times in this project I longed for three or four arms and this little wall helped to alleviate that a bit, though it also may have made some of the smoothing of the cheeks harder.
Once the clay was hard I covered the whole sculpt with aluminum foil, taping down on the edges. The first time I did it, I didn’t burnish the foil and it was a huge mistake, it left bumps all over. After burnishing the foil and adding more tape for where the foil ripped I had a much smoother surface to stretch over.