Interview with

Mask-Making Artist Annette Rose

By Molly Anderson | Posted 9/3/08 | Updated 8/26/23

Follow me down under as I interview Annette Rose, RN, BA (Anthropology), a New Zealand wonder who earned her Masters of Entrepreneurship at the University of Otago. Annette is also the Creative Director of Maskworx Limited, which was a Finalist in the David Awards in 2008. She is also co-creator of the Multimask System, and is currently working with schools and communities around the world to bring masking into the mainstream.

Q. How did you first become interested in working with mask-making as an art form?

Earth Angel - Original Artwork by Annette RoseA. Tiny, ripped up pictures of masks first started appearing in my collage work about twenty years ago. This was after the death of my mother from breast cancer and I was attending a "Symbols as a Healing Agent" workshop facilitated by Greg Furth, friend and colleague of the late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross. It wasn't long before I wanted to make a mask from scratch, but didn't know how. I asked around, and found there was a scarcity of information. That is how the idea of devising a better, more accessible and sustainable mask-making system began taking shape.

Q. Talk about using mask-making as a tool for inspiring other forms of art, including writing and storytelling?

A. Mask making is essentially a dimensional thinking tool; it contains sculptural elements, visual elements, dramatic elements and narrative elements, and the magic of story happens when all these elements come together in an artistic and stylistic way. During the process of making artistic choices and recombining elements, mask makers often experience "losing themselves" in their work. Seeing kids inside the skin of their characters, having "nailed" their characterizations, is utterly inspiring and beautiful to behold. These kids are 'in' their masks, 'in' their characters, 'in' their stories. The transformation we are looking for is when you-are-not-you. If a youngster can master moving out of the way of themselves, they can achieve anything in this world, not just art but enterprise as well.

Kiwi – Created by 8-year-old student at Meadowbank School in Auckland, New Zealand

Q. I love the idea that creating a mask can help someone represent what their cultural heritage means to them, as in the recent program your organization did with the Remuera Intermediate School in New Zealand. What inspired this project?

A. By asking the question "what does your culture mean to you?" students get to look through the 'window' of their own home culture. Quite often, whatever is right under our noses stays hidden, so it is worthwhile to explore local culture, to rediscover the beauty of folk customs and how these art forms and rituals play a critical role in the maintenance and nurturing of culture and identity. The challenge today is to teach kids that masks are more than just appealing "exotic" characters to replicate in class. Cultural masks are resilient pieces of heritage art that continue to evolve in vibrant ways.

Q. What process did Remuera students go through in creating their masks and personal narratives? What is the most important thing they learned along the way? Are other projects like this one planned for the future?

A. Remuera School students were encouraged to use their imaginations, observations, memories and interests while making their 'spirit masks'. To further illuminate "the story behind the mask" students also wrote a short story about their narrative masks. We were amazed at the depth and vividness of their portrayals using this double-pronged approach to expressing ideas. One student, who at first didn't want to do it, went on to produce one of the best mask stories based on a colourful Tongan myth! It takes courage to step inside your own stories and share their value, but that's exactly what young people of today are doing. Yes, there are future plans to team up with other schools worldwide and make culture masks and share them online, a virtual exhibition.

Q. What role did masks play in the Dunedin Midwinter Celebrations Trust this year?

A. The Dunedin midwinter lantern procession has grown and grown over the past ten years and as a trustee of the Dunedin Midwinter Celebrations Trust, it is my job to protect and advance the Carnival's artistic vision. Producing a big public spectacle using only folksy visuals and community resources without corporate funding is a challenge but each year freshly themed paper lanterns and simple white masks worn by masked dancers help achieve a gentle, freshly lit kind of enchantment that, in its own way, rivals the big bang wearable art type extravaganza. Work has already started on the event. The theme is a "winter garden."

Nine steps to a marvelous mask!

Earth Angel - Original Artwork by Annette RoseQ. What are the steps of your mask-making system? How did you develop this process to help others explore new ways to create masks?

A. The nine basic steps are designed to provide an elementary guideline for making a successful mask and remove some of the complexity that puts people off mask making.

  1. Know your stuff (research masks).
  2. Storytelling freedom (make a sketch).
  3. Create your base shape (cut embossed guidelines).
  4. Open your eyes (use eye templates).
  5. Add oomph to facial features (add character).
  6. Radial hypershapers (add drama & dimension).
  7. Getting the look right (add bling).
  8. Finishing off (ribbon ties or hand held stick).
  9. Wearing it (wear or share).

However, although this basic 9-step process is helpful for beginner explorers of art-on-the-round, it is only part of an amazing mask arts adventure we have lined up for schools and communities. Under development is a brand new model which moves away from applying a linear step-by-step approach to a non-linear art form, focusing instead on a more helpful cycle of creativity that involves making sound artistic choices. Watch this space!

Q. What is special or unique about the Multimask? What differentiates it from similar products out there?

A. Multimask is a face-shaped base mask made from recycled paper, eco-friendly and comfortable to wear. Its distinguishing feature is a set of embossed guidelines on the underside which help beginner mask makers shape and style their own mask by simply using a pair of scissors — a simple but original idea. Multimask also comes with all the media supports for "open access" mask making for anyone and everyone. Open source mask making is also an original idea.

Q. One of the things I have found common among American women I work with is that many of us — especially artists and writers — feel it is necessary to wear a "mask" — The Mommy Mask, The Success Mask, The Happy Mask — to hide our true natures or emotions. Is this also common among New Zealand women? Can the art of mask-making connect us to a more authentic sense and presentation of self, allowing us to unmask and show who we truly are inside?

Computer Geek - Original Artwork by Annette Rose

A. I will attempt to answer this question in three bites, first on a personal level, and second on a cultural level, and third on an artistic level. Yes, even though I am a mask maker I do wear social 'masks', the only difference being I am fully aware I am wearing them! I know I am acting all day every day, mostly so everyone else stays comfortable. People who dispense with social masks tend to become outcasts, sadly.

Here in New Zealand we struggle with "Tall Poppy Syndrome", a self-limiting modesty related to our small size & stature on the global stage, isolated geographical location and other identity issues. When our founding fathers left the tyrannical English class system behind they set about building a new society based on the ideals of fairness and egalitarianism. Sounds reasonable, but this pioneering idealism wears a darker face today. Over the past 150+ years many a New Zealander who dared stick their neck above the crowd got their head chopped off. And as a marker of class and excess, mask and costume were abandoned in New Zealand, a factor which added to the great difficulty of devising a better mask making system here, of all places!

Yes, even though my main task is to demystify mask making so others can explore it successfully, the artful enterprise of mask making is still transformational, one of the rare ways of rolling back the corners of the universe to understand its mysteries. This is what New Zealand teacher and writer David Hill has to say about creativity: "When you write a play/novel/whatever [create a mask], you make a shape. It's a shape that implies you find something important; something moves you enough to make you want to understand it, to remember and acknowledge it." This is how I feel about masks. If you are someone who enjoys shaping their own thing, you'll 'get' masks.

Q. Why is mask making so important today?

A. Through mask making, makers become the producer / designer of their own visual 'texts'. This represents a shift in power from a consumer orientation to a producer orientation. Besides that, it's magical, it works and the experience is unforgettable.

©2008 by Molly Anderson. All rights reserved.