For two Saturdays in March, I traveled to the Lelooska Foundation in Ariel, WA, to learn more about the art of mask carving in the Pacific NW.
The Lelooska Foundation is home to one of the chieftainships of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe. Many tribes in the NW have amazing mask traditions as a part of their potlatch. Every tribe has the rights to certain characters and stories which they can present at the potlatch, as well as some of their own stylistic signatures.
Materials and Tools
I have long admired the transformational masks of the NW Coast peoples, and I was interested to learn more about the kinds of wood used for masks, and the tools used to make them. This type of mask very often includes a mask-within-a-mask which is revealed when the dancer activates the hinge mechanism to open the outer mask.
The workshop was attended mostly by woodworkers and carvers. I have only worked in wood a very little, and it became clear what an intimate connection to material a dedicated carver has. You must have a great understanding of how red cedar or alder behave, when they are best to harvest, ready to carve, etc.
Through my studies of mask making, another thing becomes clear. While there are some tools one can purchase commercially, every dedicated artisan eventually develops and/or refines tools which are uniquely theirs. And sometimes one makes custom versions of existing tools.
The adze is a crucial tool for blocking in the rough shape. Crooked knives—as well as straight knives and chisels—refine the form of the mask.
It was cool to see these, especially as it reminded me so much of the tools I had used in Bali!
There are a number of styles of masks utilized by the peoples of the NW Coast. In addition to the transformation masks, there are are also forehead helmet masks, halo masks, and other masks with moving parts (almost like a puppet!), etc. These photos give a just at tiny peek in the large range of the amazing masks of the Kwakwaka’wakw.
The visibility for the performer is rarely as direct as you might find in a Halloween or Mardi Gras mask. The performer may have a very limited view or none at all. It takes a very skilled performer to dance them.
See for yourself!
Chief Tsungani is a wonderful storyteller, artist, and historian, and I urge any one curious to take a workshop from him. You can also see some of their masks being danced at their Living History Performances in the spring and early summer, which I also highly recommend. (Check the link for available times.) Stop by the museum and gallery when you go.