Tuesday, March 31, 2020 -
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The Mask Project

OVER the years I think I passed it now and then. But I never actually stopped and looked. I was vaguely aware of some art show taking place in Cherry Creek, but that was it.

This time was no different. I was walking quickly in Cherry Creek Mall, goal-oriented, aiming to reach a particular store just to pick one specific item up. Suddenly, whizzing by in his wheelchair is the cutest little kid, shouting and gesticulating in great excitement to his parents and siblings who are accompanying him, “Here is my mask! Here is my mask!”

My curiosity was aroused. This little boy’s enthusiasm was contagious. I was simply mesmerized by his joyousness.

I stepped down into the carpeted, skylight-lit center of the mall. I followed this little boy, finding myself standing alongside him and his family staring at a pop of color — a bright yellow ceramic molded face mask, the head topped with a cobalt blue painted cap and accented scarlet red cheeks and lips.

It was nestled among a gallery of hundreds of other artistic ceramic masks.

That is how I found out about The Mask Project, a benefit for The Denver Hospice.

I was excited for this little boy, Bjorn, I had just met. I asked him about the yellow mask he had painted, and he pointed out to me there were some brown stripes near the mouth and under the lips — this was so his painted mask would have some features of a tiger — the animal he loves most.

He then raced around in his wheelchair, showing me his favorite masks and explaining why he liked each one.

Bjorn showed me the mask of his  art therapist, Molly. She included the initials of all of her patients, and he proudly showed me his, the letters BKR, written in blue block letters, inscribed inside a white star floating in an azure sky.

I looked down at Bjorn, whom I had just met, smiling in his tiny miniature wheelchair, and blinked back the tears.

SINCE the time Molly had created her mask, some of her pediatric patients, whose initials were inscribed among the white stars, had passed on.

That is what The Denver Hospice does.

Like all hospices and their holy work, The Denver Hospice helps people with terminal illness, die. With dignity. With respect. With humanity. With care. With someone.

Whether you have insurance or don’t, whether you are young or old, whether you are surrounded by loved ones or not, The Denver Hospice is there for those stricken with terminal illness.

Bjorn, as it said near his mask, “is a fifth-generation Coloradan, is an optimistic, fun-loving 6-year-old who loves to race around in his power wheelchair . . . Bjorn has Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

“He loves the art therapy he receives through The Denver Hospice — and especially adores his therapist Molly. His mask, Dave, has tattoos on his chin to show his love of tigers. This is a funny mask meant to make people happy.

“If I were to wear Dave, I would wear him to a jungle party and be a crazy jungle man,” says Bjorn. “I would hop around the fire and yell out loud ‘woo woo, woo woo!’”

MANY of the masks had inspirational messages reflective of the theme depicted in the mask.

On the wall of heroes was a mask in honor of Christopher Anderson, a US Navy hospital corpsman who was stationed with the Marine Corps in Ramadi, Iraq, until he was killed on Dec 4, 2006.

This mask, “My Brother,” was created by Christopher’s brother, Kyle Anderson. It depicts Kyle in the right side of the face mask leaning over his dearly departed brother’s grave, yet the mask is bifurcated — the left side of the mask is a huge American flag flying over bright snow capped Rockies.

It reads:

“An epic battle in my heart. Pride vs. Pain. Honor vs. Emptiness. Freedom vs. Darkness. A dark empty room which used to be full of light stands next to the pride, honor, respect, freedom and hope I have been given. When my brother’s battle was over, a new battle started in my heart. The Pride. The Pain. The battle continues still.”

Then there was the mask titled “Amazing Grace.” It was an artistic, abstract, swirly kind of expression of a face by Morgan Miller, in black and white, intermingling lightness and darkness, the sun and the moon, night and day. The right eye was closed, the left-open — the sun’s rays curling and swirling from it and around it. Stars floated about the lips, and a slivered moon hung below the winking right eye.

The text accompanying this mask:

“How you climb up the mountain is just as important as how you get down. And, so it is with life, which for many of us becomes one big gigantic test, followed by one big gigantic lesson.

“In the end, it all comes down to one word, grace. It is how you accept winning and losing, good luck and bad luck, the darkness and the light.”

There was a terra cotta cracked face mask by Lisa Makolondra. It read:

“None of us is perfect and that is what makes us interesting. Our own history shows up on our faces just  like the mask shows just where I struck with a hammer.”

While creating her jeweled colored glass mask for the project, Tracy Hines’ mask cracked in the kiln while firing it. I was now looking at a framed bright colored broken face-piece of glass.

The accompanying text on this one:

“I was broken-hearted and could not see past the broken pieces. With the help of Jessica Stockmeyer and her vision to frame the broken mask, it was completed. She loved how is symbolized how ‘we are a little broken, yet still beautiful.’”

THESE, and many more, were all so very meaningful. But if you think this mask project is  all serious and philosophical, think again. There was so much color, whimsy, shape, quirkiness and fun! People are just so creative, and it is incredible to see what people come up with when they tap into it.

I mean, the hairstyles alone. Seashells, stars, thin curled copper wire, coral reefs, hot pink flowers and armadillos, protruding lettered puzzle pieces spilling out of an exposed 3-D brain, fanned peacock feathers, rose petals, cherry blossoms, tulle and lace, and broken pens creating a mop of hair — this one gracing the mask from the Mont Blanc Boutique.

And the food themed hairstyles? Vertical scallions, chopsticks, upside down lollipops, forks-knives-spoons, and eggbeaters.

I adored the darling Carol Dyer mask. Like all of her work, it was brightly colored, full of splendor, charm and spirit with the magic of happy days of early America captured. This one was a seaside scene with sailboats and a red and white light house dominating the mask, the people sailing, animating the ceramic mask with life, joy and innocence.

WHETHER we physically paint them or not, we all wear masks, don’t we? Whether conscious or not, to varying degrees we all role play different identities at different times. It is our life’s work to know the totality of who we really are behind the different masks.

I don’t mean we all live false, fragmented lives, but I think we do sometimes choose to present certain selves to certain people, perhaps sometimes appearing to be something we are not.

Certainly, none of us veined and blood-vesseled human beings is like a static mask — depicting only one thing at a time. We are so many faces all at once — sometimes choosing to put on a human mask that might mask who we are, sometimes a human mask that interfaces with our many faces, sometimes just joy or tragedy, but often it is a mingling, a nuance of emotions.

One thing seems sure, a mask is transformative. It makes me put forth and be, even if externally, something or someone specific.

In that sense, how apt is this project. For in the closing of life, The Denver Hospice, and all hospices, are there to transform the deeply painful, or perhaps lonely or meaningless face of death, and accompany people in this final journey of farewell and leave-taking.

Bjorn, thank you.

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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