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Mask makers heal through their art

“When we posted the first mask … people went crazy for it. It travelled around the Internet and there was lots of interest. The group started to grow and here we are now with an exhibit.”

BANFF – Take a deep breath and breathe.

The latest exhibit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies – Breathe – features a rather novel accessory that has quickly become part of our “new normal:” the facemask.

“It never started out with the intention of being an exhibit," said Lisa Shepherd a Métis bead artist and co-creator of the exhibit. "It came about through the need for artists to express themselves as a way to get through this pandemic and heal through the creative process.

“As artists, I think we are super-feelers and so when something this big happens you sort of just freeze. And how do you express yourself?”

The need to share led Shepherd to reach out to friend and fellow Métis artist, Nathalie Bertin. Together the pair started the Facebook page Breathe.

The page started as a place for artists and craftspeople to “unpack their feelings” and share their experience in the early stages of the pandemic. Shepherd said the group follows the important lessons of reciprocity, respect and honour.

Things quickly ramped up after Shepherd posted the first beaded mask in the group.

“When we posted the first mask … people went crazy for it. It travelled around the Internet and there was lots of interest. The group started to grow and here we are now with an exhibit.”

Initially, the intention for Breathe was to involve only Indigenous artists, but because of the popularity the pair quickly opened it up to everyone.
Within two weeks, the group was 1,500 members strong with people joining from across the globe.

Hundreds of the members have since created elaborately decorated masks from fabric, animal hide, birch bark, wool, glass and other materials, considered traditional to each individual's respective cultural backgrounds.

“We just followed where the masks took us. After the first few masks were posted it was a natural progression to open an exhibit.”

Though the Facebook group features the work of artists from around the world, the exhibit at the Whyte Museum is exclusively made up of 37 Canadian artists featuring 45 masks.

Accompanying each mask is a story by the maker reflecting the variety of emotions currently being felt around the world. The timeline of the pandemic can be followed in the exhibit, depending on when each mask was created.

“These masks are not meant to be worn, they are not personal protection," said Shepherd. "They are a form of creative expression. In essence, what these artists are doing is documenting this huge global event from their place in an authentic way." 

At a time when artists have been struggling, Breathe has provided much-needed exposure. As a result of the popularity, some masks have been sold privately to individuals or to American museums.

Shepherd said it was not the group’s intention to make a profit from the masks, but she is thrilled it has been able to provide a form of compensation and exposure for artists. She said she is open to Canadian institutions acquiring some of the masks. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has been collecting masks and is planning a virtual exhibition.

“It’s amazing to see what we have created at a grassroots level. That is through the participation of all of the participants to heal during this challenging time,” Shepherd said.

Breathe is on view at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies until Jan. 17, 2021.