Future selves

Over the weeks I have been collecting lots of materials that could be used in completing the future selves masks -stuff that might be used as hair of various kinds -and brought them with me on this real visit. Walking into the room each child had their mask sitting in front of them on the desk and I was struck by the quality and variety of the masks and by their expressivity. I brought my most finished mask and showed how different types of hair and different elements of costume could really change the character. I showed the children photos of some of the people from my life who were influencing the features and costume on my mask. They made suggestions about what combinations to use. When I put all of them together the effect was quite powerful. Hair adds so much character and the children played with the materials on their own masks, experimenting, discussing and checking the effect before they brought out glue and staplers and committed to particular designs. Some brilliant hairstyles and eyebrows and even beards appeared. Mrs Wilson has been working with the children on their dreams and aspirations and her work with the class has really underpinned the creative experimentation. Future selves included retired models, footballers, and still-active farmers, business men and women. Almost everyone had brought in costumes -some really elaborate. By the time that the children were dressed the glue was dry and it was time to document these magnificent individuals. As soon as the masks went on movement changed. Such transformation: some of it due to the physical shape of the masks. The very nature of the apertures for seeing or speaking made it mechanically difficult for the children to see or speak as usual but the characters were also created through carefully constructed costume choices that made movement more formal or more free depending on the character. Many of the children knew how age might affect their character -some walking and talking differently. There were some walking sticks but many of the characters still had a sprightly attitude. It was a full performance. We found a good backdrop in the outdoor classroom and everyone took lots of photos. Two of the characters posed for a photo shaking hands together and then explained: “We’ve just bought three hotels.”

One of the best moments was when the “older people” were climbing the steps very gingerly to go back into the school. Hindered by the limited sightlines from inside the masks, some of them were really showing their age! The children were keen to showcase their hard work so we devised a simple promenade performance and took it on tour around the school. The P1 and P2’s were particularly appreciative, having had their own mask experience quite recently. The P6’s and P7’s had trouble figuring out who was behind the masks, even though some of them were younger siblings!

It was evident that the P3’s and P4’s had confidence in their creative work and were really proud of their imagination and hard graft. This was yet another memorable day in Donaghey. Unfortunately it was also our final session for this phase. It was really sad to finish but we have had so much fun and we have to stop somewhere. Like Mrs Wilson, I have thoroughly enjoyed this year and finish this phase enthused and refreshed by this inexhaustible creativity of children from this genuinely wonderful school.


To the children and everyone who supports the project in Donaghey and beyond: I think that you know how good you are but it’s worth saying again. Thank you all so much.


We are such stuff

As dreams are made on….


The Tempest Act IV Scene I

William Shakespeare

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The skin we live in

The children are ready to add skin tone to their masks. We talked a bit about how skin colours over time through exposure to wind and sun and that they should think about what their future self might have experience -whether they would be out in the elements or travelling the world or spending a lot of time indoors. Again we looked at examples for inspiration, revelling in the individuality of age spots, joined up freckles, prominent veins or dark circles -how all of these things make the face so much more distinctive. We looked at how the experience of life can show through the face. Years ago in Virtually There we did some portrait work with a class and spent a whole day thinking about how to mix a skin colour. The children in this class have been getting some great skin tones from very early on with only a little direction on how to mix colours. I think that watercolour is great in getting children into colour mixing because such little amount of paint makes such a difference on the page and that sensitises the children when they are using more opaque pigment. I was prepared to spend as long as necessary in thinking about the colours but, again, the children themselves seem to know what to do. They were really thorough in applying colour and were able to mix plenty of colour to allow more than one coat -very impressive and again, lots of really thoughtful variations in skin-tone. Everyone’s mask is, once again, vibrantly individual. At the end of the session we had a think about what their characters might wear and I invited the children if possible, to bring in elements of costume for the following week.

Whiteboard Screens
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Characters come to life

Time is really flying and the masks are taking shape. We are adding a base layer of white paint to kill off the newsprint and make it easier to add the flesh coloured paint. The children seem to have an instinct about what to do and have been thinking about how their finished masks will look. While method and observations are informing and structuring the artwork, as with the watercolour experiments before Christmas there is room for spontaneity and imagination. All of our discussions about older relatives, all of the drawing and photos and the earlier thought processes are feeding into this work and making our masks richer and more characterful. The intention is that the masks will be worn. Character mask work always needs to have this kind of spontaneity built into it. Otherwise the completed masks will be hard for us to inhabit and bring to life.

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A sticky week

Alert: I have to warn you -this week could get very messy. Everyone was prepared with hair tied back, cover-shirts on and sleeves rolled up, but even with that, we needed to face the facts -it was going to be sticky! Before we started everyone checked the fit of the masks, making sure that they could see out of the eyes.

I wanted my mask to have a rounded head so I added a rounded crown from the top of a balloon. I encouraged the children to consider doing this if they wanted a particular hairstyle or the option of having a bald head but I think that only one person in the class is considering the option. I chose one of my prototypes and worked on the floor again with the camera tilted down adding strips of paper and letting the children watch as much as they needed to. Mrs Wilson did some testing in between times to see how strong the glue was and how much water she would add to the PVA and she demonstrated in the classroom as well so that the children knew how to make sure that there were no air bubbles or dry patches. The children weren’t used to being quite so sticky and at the beginning were a bit….delicate with how they were handling the strips. We encouraged them to coat every strip and to paint with glue before adding. Layers and layers built up, helping to connect and smooth off the raw peaks and troughs from the previous week. I used creative license, giving my mask BFG ears and a great big nose -lots of my family members have large ears and noses even if I don’t: perhaps my own ears might take a miraculous growth spurt at some point. I enjoyed shaping saggy cheek pockets and bags under the eyes. We kept checking in with each other was really impressed by the progress that the children made. By the end of the session everyone’s masks had grown a skin. As predicted, it was far too sticky for anyone to photograph much. I will finish off the layers later and take photos when I can hold a camera again!

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Taking shape


My papier maché experiments have been very slow and in discussions with Mrs Wilson I have realised that we couldn’t spend several weeks just adding layers to the masks, so we are going to combine the traditional papier maché with the instant papier maché as we think that it will be more accessible for the P3 and P4 children. So this week we are adding features. We revisited the masks from last week and looked at ideas of profile, how faces had 3-dimensional form. We felt our own faces for hollows and protrusions and again, looked at how these features became exaggerated with age, so that the landscape of the face had more mountains and valleys in age than in childhood. Sometime parts of the cheeks might get pulled in, cheekbones and chins might stick out. The children had egg-boxes, newsprint and masking tape and we looked at how we might use these to add contours to the face. I showed them how I had chosen to build up some of the masks in different ways to give them different personalities based on different family members. I worked on the floor and showed how I was adding layers and shaping them with my fingers and then the children were off. Every now and again Mrs Wilson would draw their attention to something that I was doing and the children watched and absorbed and adapted if they wanted to. Full intensity gripped the room. Mrs Wilson and Tanya made headbands so that the children could wear the masks without needing to hold them up manually. What an amazing parade as the masks took shape.


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Big Friendly Giant Ears

It started with Big Friendly Giant Ears. Way back before the beginning of this phase, when I got my version of the BFG out of the library, the back page of the book had a template for cut-out ears. While this was a fun idea, it made me wonder about how the rest of the face could be added. This was partly the thought process that led to the P1 and P2 mask-work. While experimenting with them, I played with other ways of creating masks, going back to the old method of using a balloon and papier maché as a base and trying different glue combinations -PVA, flour and water. I documented parts of the experimentation but when I got to certain stages of the process it was far too sticky to go near the camera! I also played with instant papier maché and with some of the prototypes then added the traditional layers on top.

While sticky and quite slow, the experimentation made me sure that we could have a go with the P3 and P4. Once we knew that the older class was really excited by the P1 and P2 work, Mrs Wilson and I decided that we had to give them the opportunity to work with masks as well. Developing from the dream-jar theme, the idea was create masks of future selves, inspired by the character of the BFG. Meeting the P3 and P4 children again was exciting. They had been working on the BFG book in the meantime and by this point they all loved the character of the BFG. My challenge for them was to wonder what they might be like when they got older, maybe as old as the BFG. We thought back to the people that they might know in their families who were older. Through photos, drawings and painting, we looked at images of older people and what happens to faces in the aging process, how noses and ears can get larger, how skin sags and folds and takes on amazing shapes. With Mrs Wilson, the class had already been thinking about what they might want to do in their lives when they were adults but this session took them much further into the future and also challenged them to be really imaginative. Some of the subjects in the sample images were people who challenged stereotypes of age.

Inspired by these images, the children made beautiful drawings of their future selves, working freely and imaginatively. Then we started to translate their ideas into mask form, creating cardboard base layers, large enough to wrap around the face from ear to ear. The children worked in pairs to mark where the ears, eyes, foreheads and chins would be and then the cutting began. As eyes and mouths were cut, characters emerged and expressions appeared. I have no doubt: these are going to be brilliant masks.



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The power to inspire

It wasn’t just me who was inspired by the youngest people in the school. It turns out that the P3’s and P4’s have been keeping a close eye on developments with the P1’s and P2’s. Some of the younger children’s work has been on display in the school and everyone is seriously impressed with what they have been up to. The P3’s and P4’s have been asking Mrs Wilson if they might get to do something like that…….Hmmmm…..let’s just say that plans are afoot……

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I made a surprise real visit this week. Mrs Wilson got the children ready for the session and they couldn’t see me on the screen so they were calling me. When I appeared at the door one of the children said: ” we were shouting you” and another said “how did you get here so quick?”, complaining that the computer didn’t work! If last week seemed hard to beat, this week was even better. We went to the school hall and taped together large bits of paper on the floor to make backdrops that were taller than the children. Then the children used plant sprayers to create squirty patterns on the background. Mrs Wilson did try to take extra turns but we were able to persuade her to be good -just about! Apart from a few shoes that got accidentally skited, amazingly the bulk of paint landed on the page. Applied this way, we knew that the paint would dry fairly quickly in time for use to use later in the day. Next we made another backdrop, again, with the children laying out and taping together large sheets of paper.

Everyone chose shades of whites, blues and greens and the children mixed them together -from mint to navy to jade. This time the children used sponges and started in the middle, creating a pattern that spread out and covered the whole huge area. The teamwork and maturity of the P1’s and P2’s was incredible, especially considering how excited the adults were. We hung the backdrops against the gym bars and after break the children took turns with the i-pads to photograph each other in their masks.

They looked amazing but their poses made the masks really come to life. The P1’s and P2’s are inspirational -they have such a free way of working and they are so natural with the virtual process. It’s been amazing. I am so glad that we tried this experiment and hope that we can bring some of this inspiration to bear when work resumes with the P3’s and P4’s.


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Fan club

Look who’s here!

The children got a new mask and another chance to make it look different from everyone else’s. This time the cutting was a lot bolder and more confident -even daring. The only rule was not to cut the elastic away. This week, before breaktime, families came into the session to see the work and so many of them took the opportunity to come in and find out what was going on. The room was totally packed. Family members were allowed to try on the masks and everyone took photos. There was so much warmth in the room. Some fantastic shapes emerged and after break the next challenge was to choose strong colour combinations for paint.

What a great day.

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More decisions

After last week’s session some of the children decided that if they had the chance again they would like to do more cutting on their masks as they liked the way other people’s masks looked when they had made more changes. We decided to provide a new white mask and let them have another chance to cut. But in the meantime, there was other work to do.

Mrs Wilson and Margaret laid out the masks from the previous week and again the children took turns to try and find their own within the group. They really liked this game and had asked to play it again. This time it was a lot easier. We compared the cut masks with the white ones and it was amazing how much character the children had created. Paint helped to make the mask even more unique. As one of the children said: “we want to make them different”.

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