Beyond the Classroom: Masks & Connections

Making casts of handsMaking Masks and Connections

When JSC Humanities instructor Cynthia West was developing an extended classroom experience to include as part of her First Year Seminar "Cultivating the Cross-Cultural Mind," she  wanted a project that would enable the students — the majority of whom are from rural Vermont — to interact with and get to know peers from around the world, as well as something that would help integrate international students into the JSC community.

To this end, Ms. West devised the "Interdisciplinary Mask Making Project." She teamed up with Margo Warden, Director of First Year Experience and with the JSC Advising & Career Center's Sara Kinerson, who works closely with JSC's international students to pair the 13 students in her seminar with 13 international students at JSC and have them, as a team, create a pair of masks representing their two cultures. "This can be powerful stuff," explains Ms. West. "Casting someone's hand or face is a pretty amazing experience." She felt this was the kind of creative, hands-on, interdisciplinary experience that would take cross-cultural communication out of the realm of abstraction for her students and make a lasting impact on their lives.

Once the seminar students were matched with an international partner, they researched their partner's home country and culture. They had a range of cultures to choose from, as the international participants hailed from Sudan, Congo, Norway, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Australia, and Romania.

Then the group of 26 students gathered in the JSC Visual Arts Center one afternoon in October, where fine arts instructor Carolyn Mecklosky and two student assistants, John Harriton and Rebecca McMichael, taught them how to make plaster casts of one another's faces or hands. The goal of the session was to produce two 3-D casts of each person's hand or face, which would then be incorporated into a final art piece. This workshop also gave seminar students a chance to get to know their partners and share some information about their own "microcultures" within the United States.

The seminar students mounted the double-mask portrait in a box and included some additional materials, including found objects and words that symbolized themselves, their partners and their respective cultures. Additionally, each of the seminar students was asked to include a written statement about the project. The final works were unveiled at an art opening, attended by many JSC students, and then displayed on campus for the entire JSC community to view.

One student, Megan Waterhouse, wrote of her project:

"This piece is a representation of friendship, and the difference of values between cultures.  The green face in the background was modeled after my friend James from Sudan.  The orange hand is a cast of my own hand.  . . .  This image shows the exchange of gifts, a symbol of friendship between the two people.  The green face . . . has given a sprig of flowers.  The orange hand has accepted the flowers as a gift of innocence, embracing life and nature.  However, the orange hand . . . only has this cheap yellow beaded necklace to give, a sign of materialism.  . . .   One culture embraces life, family, and nature as a way of life.  The other embraces a materialistic culture that places a great deal of emphasis on spending money, and counting one’s possessions.  However by the exchange of gifts between these two people, there is a lesson learned and an exchange of friendship, no matter what the differences between cultures."

Ms. West had hoped the experience would make issues of cultural difference and similarities more concrete and cause her students to reflect on these issues. If student comments like this one (from the class final) — "Working with this international student was an awesome experience. . . researching can be helpful, but actual experience and personal feelings are so much more meaningful" — are any indication, then it would seem she was successful.