If you ask Molly Bannerman, Harm Reduction Social Worker at South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto, Ontario, the best way to help survivors of trauma recover, her response is: engage their whole bodies. “Trauma becomes registered in every fiber of your being—not just your brain,” she explains. “When you are repeatedly exposed to trauma, you have to be present with your brain, your heart, and your body.”
And that is exactly what Pamela Schuller, an Artistic Director and Mask Therapist in Toronto, specializes in. Pamela leads mask-making workshops at places like South Riverdale Community Health Centre that help people recognize and express what she calls the “shadows” of their existence. She explains that “[the workshops] help people integrate the hidden and denied parts of themselves into their conscious experience and to see their sorrow, anger, wisdom, and everything in between.”
Molly echoes this, describing that many of the women her clinic serves are ones who do not always fit into the systemic structures for dealing with trauma—namely, the traditional convention of counseling. She says that creating masks gives the women she works with an alternate kind of space for expression. There, they can safely explore realities they often feel the need to hide in order to fit in to society.
And Molly adds that the tactile nature of mask making has allowed women to learn about themselves in a way that traditional trauma talk therapy might not have. “Thoughts and emotions get passed through women’s fingertips before their minds edit them,” she explains, “and the women stay in that space, even in the most intense situations. They really want to put a face to it, and they want to understand.”
Molly says that many of the women who come to the Community Health Centre are operating in a constant mode of crisis and panic and feel ungrounded. They may be dealing with a variety of rotating issues; one day, an abusive relationship might be at the forefront of their thoughts, and the next day, it’s housing or health. “But what we know about crisis,” says Molly, “is that when you do tactile things, you become more grounded, shifting from one part of the brain to another. Having something to do with your hands allows you to engage in something and reduces your level of anxiety and panic.”
Compared to drawing—which Molly says can sometimes make women feel like they aren’t really artists—masks are rough and raw-looking works in many cultures, and many of the women feel more freedom with this artistic medium. The end result is an embodied form of everything inside of you. “You go through this process of making a mask, and then it’s staring right back at you,” Molly explains. “It is a very clear and tangible expression of the underlying emotions we all live with.”
One of the women in the group, Sharon, echoes this, saying that creating her own mask allowed her to more fully feel many hurtful feelings she had been suppressing before. Pamela says that this is exactly the goal of the mask-making workshop: to let yourself be vulnerable as you see your own and others’ masks. This experience externalizes hidden aspects of the self that might otherwise remain unseen, or that we might not think about discussing out loud.
“This helps to integrate your unconscious experience into your current experience without feeling like it’s something you have to hide,” says Pamela. “And it ends up making you more bold and conscious of who you are and what you need to do to change something that can get you stuck in life.”
For Sharon, the fact that the workshop is held with other women is key. “Working among other women was very healing, and we would say healing words to each other as we worked,” she says. “I was amazed at the different masks that people were making, and I was completely enthralled with making my own mask.” She describes her own mask as shocking, with a white face, yellow hair, and a bright, stark, and dramatically large red mouth. This image, she says she realized later, reflects the anger she’s experienced throughout her life, and the fact that she always used her mouth to vocalize it. Molly and Pamela help the women capture this kind of meaning by walking around the room during the workshop and interviewing the women so they articulate the emotions they are experiencing. These later become part of a journal that accompanies each woman’s mask.
Molly and Pamela say that making masks helps the women develop empathy for each other, and that being engaged in the same activity, in the same place and at the same time, supports that goal. Molly says she was impressed with how supportive the women became of each other in the mask-making space. Being together actually became a prominent theme of their conversations, and she says she’s rarely seen the women get so excited about a project; some were so eager to work on their masks that they would be waiting at the door of the clinic when it opened in the morning.
And when the masks go on display in lobbies or art shows, they say that the women are truly affected as they look at the masks that reflect their diverse stories and the deepest parts of themselves. “My mask represents unity, even though we’re different; we’re all in it together as women,” describes one participant; and it is precisely this type of self-awareness and togetherness that can result when women open their minds, hearts, and bodies.
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