Poetics of Protection

Maria Popova’s mask after Ellen Harding Baker’s 1876 Solar System quilt.
Courtesy of Maria Popova.

Masks are an art form with utilitarian roots dating back to prehistoric times. They have significance in practically every culture and society throughout the world. Masks have three general qualities: to protect, disguise and transform. For example, when worn by shamans, masks help in the performative channeling of spirits for purposes of healing, purifying and protecting their communities. Medical professionals, such as doctors and nurses, also perform and provide these essential services for the public. Masks for medical care were developed as a result of epidemics like the bubonic plague during the 16th century, in order to prevent the spread of disease and maintain safer working environments in clinics and hospitals. Masks are also a huge asset to retail and commerce industries. Facial masks are valued for their skincare revitalization properties and fanciful costume masks are a major contributor to the $9 billion dollar Halloween industry. However, these days it might be safe to wager that the triple layered face masks used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have outsold Halloween masks tenfold.

As a blogger, I maintain an extensive blogroll that continues to grow. One of the blogs I read regularly is Brain Pickings, written by Maria Popova. A recent post titled “As an Antidote to Fear of Death, I Eat the Stars: Vintage Science Face Masks” inspired one of my late night sojourns down the internet rabbit hole, where I learned about how art-centered reflections of land, sea and space, influenced public and professional knowledge about the natural world and the cosmos. Popova typically weaves interdisciplinary and multifaceted subjects within her blog posts. In this instance, she presents a collection of face masks that are sewn together using centuries-old astronomical art and natural history illustrations, which she has culled from various archival sources. Popova has previously written about each figure whose work is featured on her masks, such as Elizabeth Blackwell, an 18th century botanical illustrator and author who illustrated a comprehensive and seminal guide to medicinal plants (see: Popova, 2020). One of the astronomical inspired creations Popova references is the Solar System quilt by a 19th century American astronomer and educator named Ellen Harding Baker. The purpose of the Solar System quilt was to serve as a visual aid for teaching astronomy. Baker’s work is a precursor to feminist art and education, as well as STEAM learning.

Ellen Harding Baker, The Solar System quilt, 1876. Collection of the Smithsonian Institute, gifted by Patricia Hill McCloy and Kathryn Hill Meardon. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

All of the historical figures whose designs are featured on Popova’s masks had an aptitude and passion for art, as well as science. Their aesthetic depictions of the cosmos, ecosystems and natural phenomena, have taught and intrigued generations of students, scientists and laypersons alike. Some of the work represents an ominous account of how humans have deeply affected and altered the course of natural history. For example, many species of fauna depicted in Sarah Stone’s 18th century visionary illustrations are either extinct or endangered today (see: Popova, 2019).

Felicia Murray, Our Dying Coral Reefs, 2020, wool dyed with seaweed and foraged plants.
Courtesy the artist and Vicki Myhren Gallery, Denver, CO

Contemporary issues affecting the Earth’s landscape, atmosphere and waterways have inspired mask making projects by artists and the general public. Art historian Geoffrey Shamos and gallery manager Lauren Hartog, recently curated an exhibition with 45 inventive artist interpretations of face masks at University of Denver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery. While the masks ranged in subject matter, a good deal of the work responded to environmental issues. One poignant and stunning example is Our Dying Coral Reefs (2020), by Portland, Oregon based fiber artist, Felicia Murray. Murray’s mask is made from wool to resemble a bleached coral reef. To add to the confluence art and science, she dyed the wool with seaweed and foraged plants. The mask is a materials-based statement on the climate change that utilizes more ethically sourced art materials instead of typical art dyes that can have adverse environmental effects.

Yours truly with a mask made during a workshop I co-facilitated with alt break and Art of Change 21 in 2018.

The international arts organization, Art of Change 21, has been championing creative campaigns that promote scientific and ecological awareness of major issues like global warming, air pollution, waste and pandemics. Their goal is to “awaken people’s consciousness and turn every individual into an actor of change.” One of their projects is called Maskbook, where participants are guided in the creation of an anti-pollution mask. These masks are made using a template that resembles a face mask utilized to prevent an individual from breathing in harmful air. During the pandemic, facilitators of the Maskbook workshops recommend that participants make their mask template using cardboard or paper-mâché, or start with an expired, defective or used anti-dust or anti-pollution mask. The next step after you have your base, is to personalize it with found objects. The idea is to upcycle materials that would otherwise be considered waste. During the personalization process, mask makers are prompted to think about what the environment means to them and how they interact with it on an intimate level. When I facilitated a Maskbook workshop I asked those in attendance to consider what are some issues that affect the environment and what is the ecological impact of the issues in both macro and micro terms? After listing some problems associated with climate change, we considered how these issues impact our own daily experiences and the lives of others around us. Then we focused on the visual elements of these issues and how we could use recycled and natural materials to symbolize them.

The stories that masks tell helps us connect to worldly and otherworldly experiences. The longstanding relationship masks have with art and science serves both pedagogical and protective purposes. The powerful messages that artfully crafted masks send also reinforces scientific research, guidance and best practices, such as wearing masks to stop the spread of infectious diseases. So please wear a mask, and do it in style.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

“Artists reinvent the mask – in pictures.” The Guardian, 21 November 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2020/nov/21/artists-reinvent-the-mask-in-pictures?CMP=share_btn_tw

Popova, Maria. “Cosmic Threads: A Solar System Quilt from 1876.” Brain Pickings, 6 December 2018. https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/12/06/ellen-harding-baker-solar-system-quilt/

Popova, Maria. “Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species.” Brain Pickings, 12 March 2019. https://www.brainpickings.org/2019/03/12/sarah-stone-natural-history-illustration/

Popova, Maria. “A Curious Herbal: Gorgeous Illustrations from Elizabeth Blackwell’s 18th-Century Encyclopedia of Medicinal Botany.” Brain Pickings, 29 January 2020. https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/01/29/elizabeth-blackwell-curious-herbal/


    1. I love the masks you make! They’re incredibly relevant. I’d say you should definitely reach out to Art of Change 21 (that’s who I assume you’re talking about, yes?). Alt break collaborated with them in 2018 (hence my selfie!). Wishing you a happy, healthy and warm holidays and new year ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed! It’s all about the critical reflection that enables generations to unmask (pun intended) the great social and environmental injustices and work towards creative solutions.


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