Mask Making – Abraham Maslow’s Exploding Head

It’s 1976 and I am a new student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby working towards my Bachelor of Arts degree. Like most first year students pursuing a liberal arts education, I enrolled in the obligatory “101 Courses” – Sociology 101, Philosophy 101, Political Science 101, and Psychology 101. These introductory courses give one a brief overview of each discipline – a glimpse of the significant ideas, and of the great minds and leaders that contributed so profoundly to each school of thought. Like many a young undergrad, I embraced certain great thinkers and their work with the enthusiasm of the newly-informed. Psych 101 introduced me to Abraham Maslow and his theory known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” ( ) …which I found stimulating and enlightening and caused me to faun over “all things Maslow” …for a while at least.

Abraham Maslow.jpg

With the fervor of an acolyte, I felt that I would show my deep admiration for my new Psych 101 Guru with the creation of a graven image in his honor – I would buy a big lump of clay and sculpt a ceramic likeness of him which I would put on my mantle for all to see…this would be my second attempt at mask/bust making since high school….and really, how could you not want to – just look at that face! 🙂

I went out and got my materials and set to work. Twenty pounds or so of grey, cold, wet clay which I would squish and pound and flatten, mold and sculpt into a reasonable likeness of my love object – Abraham Maslow ❤ Within days I had crafted a wonderful 3-dimensional bust of Dr. M. which I left it out to dry in the kitchen of the house I shared with friends in New Westminster.

But where to take if for firing? I didn’t have a kiln but I knew my good friend Doug W. shared one with his father as they were both into making ceramic plates and bowls on the potter’s wheel, which they also co-owned. “No problem”, said Doug, “Dad and I are firing a batch of new plates and bowls which we’ve just made – why don’t you stick your head in the kiln and we’ll fire it for you” …potter’s say such things 🙂 So I put Abraham under my arm and trudged off to Doug’s kiln place in Burnaby. All seemed in order…kiln full of lovely plates and bowls…glazed and ready to be baked. I gingerly placed dear Abraham Maslow in the oven…closed the door and turned up the heat.

I don’t recall how long the firing process was. Maybe we hung around and visited…played some guitar…maybe I tried to convert Doug with the newfound wisdom that I had garnered from my Psych 101 course. Perhaps I went home and came back later at the appointed hour when the contents of the kiln had cooled down enough that it could be opened safely. Whatever the timing, when we finally opened the kiln like expectant children on Christmas morning, there it was… Abraham Maslow’s exploded head lying in pieces and shards, inextricably fused into the molten glazing which adorned Doug & his Dad’s beautiful ceramic efforts…

We stood in silence looking at the debacle inside the kiln. Doug and his father were too polite to get angry or cast blame, but I knew that the fault lay with Maslow & Me – so, of course, I blamed Maslow…”Well Dougie,” I said ”it seems clear to me that once Maslow had secured his basic physiological needs, and that the needs of safety, love and esteem had been achieved his efforts at self-actualization and self transcendence proved too much for him”…”and his head just exploded”…”the heat of the kiln likely expanded a cranium already filled with large and important ideas and it just burst…happens all the time”…

Doug and his father didn’t appear to be listening but were gingerly removing their pottery in hopes of salvaging some of their pieces. “Did you work & knead the clay before you started to sculpt your bust?”, asked Doug’s father, “it’s critical to do this to work out the air bubbles in the clay which can expand and explode during the firing process”… “Uuh…air bubbles?” I squeaked. “Uuh…yeah, I think so”…I peeked in and noticed that one of Maslow’s ears and the bridge of his nose were intact so I salvaged them as reminders of the “air bubble thing” if I ever delved into clay work again. Doug and his father kept one of the Maslow-splattered plates as a reminder to only share their kiln with ceramicists who actually knew what they were doing. Here’s one of the pieces of Maslow that I kept as a memento of my second attempt at mask making…


Mask Making – Túatha the Prototype

The idea of creating human-likeness ceramic masks with deer antlers, (germinated the night of “The Seminal Moment” – ), didn’t evaporate with my morning-after hangover…like so many of my other ill-conceived ideas. The two pictures of Ben B. sporting makeshift branch antlers remained on my kitchen corkboard (Good Ben, Evil Ben) and served as constant reminders of the events of that evening. As it had been many years since my last mask-making attempt (which ended in tragi-comic disaster:  ) I thought it best to enroll in a clay-sculpting course, and found one being offered at Delbrook Community Centre in North Vancouver, taught by “Louisa”. Obtaining the appropriate clay was as simple as dropping in to any one of the many art supply stores in this town. But where does one find antlers? Mr. Internet was a great help, as was Steve Kulash Taxidermy (located then) on Kingsway in Burnaby. I bought 3 sets of deer antlers, of varying shapes and sizes, to help visualize and conceptualize the final product.

I studied sculpting techniques and researched various facial types to get the particular look I was after…sketching, copying or cutting out imagery from rare Library books (kidding!) I also expanded my understanding of the mythical pagan-era deities which sported horns and antlers – the Celtic Cernunnos (antlers), Greek Pan (horns), and the Roman Faunus (horns). It is interesting to note that these pagan deities, which primarily represented benign Gods of nature, forest, stream and fertility, had their imagery hijacked sometime during the Christian era when horned beings came to represent evil, or, the Devil. I’m not sure if this was a conscious and purposeful effort on the part of the church to blacken the benevolent reputation of these pagan deities, if so, it was a cynical reworking of history and a manipulation of indigenous beliefs.

Initially – on the first series of masks – I was trying to avoid the use of powerful glues to affix the antlers to the fired ceramic clay. To accomplish this, I designed a method by which I could: drill a small hole at the base of each antler; run a length of bendable copper wire through the hole; and run the wire through holes in the skull which were then twisted together, out of sight within the cavity of the mask. This left the antlers sometimes a tad wiggly, but I preferred this to the use of inorganic materials (granted, the final glazes and paints are not organic)

Some have noted that Túatha’s image bears a resemblance to me. Although that was not my intent, I too have found the visage to share Celtic/Nordic features (my heritage) which, when combined with the copper-rust patina, reminds me of a primitive time-worn relic of some forgotten Celtic King…It was this interpretation that inspired me to call the piece – Túatha – which is Gaelic (a subset of Celtic) for polity, people, or nation.


(This mask is available for purchase: )

The whole process from concept to design and finally creation was fun and interesting and I was pleased with the final product. As a prototype, Túatha was a success, and my intention was to proceed with the next mask (see: “Boko – The Influence of Events” – article under construction). But it was 2005 and a disruptive piece of life had descended upon me ( see Death Mask Parts 1 and 2 –  )…I would not return to clay sculpting and the kiln for the next 5 years.


Mask Making – The Seminal Moment

I would like to be able to say that my foray into mask making was born from a sophisticated artistic vision …perhaps a recognition of some cultural void that needed to be filled …maybe an epiphany which drove me relentlessly to bring my profound altruistic message to the world…sadly this was not the case. Although I cannot pinpoint the exact date upon which my moment of inspiration arrived, I do know exactly where it took place and what was going on at the time. The photographic record does not lie. I was on my back porch and I was stoned.

It was sometime in the early years of the new millennium – likely a summer evening judging by our clothes – I was at my home on 17th Avenue, in Vancouver, hanging out on my porch with my two deer friends, Craig and Ben, and we were stoned. Somewhere during our inebriated journey that evening I had picked up a tree branch which – in my mind – gave the appearance of deer antlers when affixed to one’s head. What jolly fun – a literal Stag Party. Taking turns acting out our archetypal Bucks…our inner Harts…


Ben decided – either of his own volition or through friendly goading – to give us two depictions of the Good/Evil archetype by grimacing and posturing during the second shot. I liked these two photos of Ben who was – in life – consummately good, and never evil…so I labeled them with tiny yellow stickies and stuck them on the corkboard in my kitchen for all to see. Good Ben, Evil Ben.


The antics of that evening remained with me, and gave rise to further – sober or otherwise – thoughts. Could I fabricate a ceramic human-faced mask, and attach real deer antlers to it, and how might that be accomplished? I knew that antlers would not survive firing in the kiln so they would need to be attached after the firing/glazing process…how could they be affixed without falling off? Where does one obtain antlers? Where did Ben perfect the art of looking so Evil?

These and other thoughts would need to frolic in my consciousness for a while before they could form a committee and then table a resolution to cobble together a request for follow-up action. As one who doesn’t always act quickly – except for ill-fated decisions and bad choices – this process would take at least two years…from concept to creation. Fortunately, Ben was there on my kitchen wall to both encourage and frighten me with his Jekyll and Hyde personas.

Although pollination and germination were slow, the antler-branch would eventually bare fruit. If you are at all intrigued, the first harvest of that conceptual sowing can be viewed in the following article: “Mask Making – Túatha the Prototype” –


All Roads at Any Time

I spend a considerable amount of time on Mayne Island where I have my Studio/Gallery. The island has a substantial indigenous deer population, and a rather large tribe of Fallow Deer which were brought here many years ago as commercial farm animals. There is some debate amongst islanders as to whether the Fallow deer escaped from their pens or were secretly released to wreak their insatiable and indiscriminate eating habits on the unsuspecting gardeners of this fair isle. Regardless…we have a surfeit of Cervidae which can leap unexpectedly from the roadsides into the path of oncoming cars, leading to unpredictable results, which range from frightening to fatal – if not for the islanders themselves then for our furry fallow friends.

Realizing the plight that we face here on our winding Bambi-infested roads, the good people at the “Ministry of All Things Perilous” got together with some lads at the “Department of Hamlets and Slippery Roads” to design the sign which you can observe in the photograph below….IMG_1368

“All Roads at Any Time” …As a ceramic mask maker and oft times artist who uses deer antlers and dried hooves in his work, I have developed a fondness and quirky reverence for these graceful and timid ruminants. As my interest also extends to depictions of deer, I was immediately drawn to the image of the leaping black deer. As someone who has also experienced his fair share of random, chaotic and quixotic events, I was struck by the universal message of the sign and now consider it to be a metaphor for life...All Roads at Any Time …it may be a truism, but I think it doesn’t hurt to be reminded – anything can happen (the Black Deer Event) at anyplace and anytime.

I have wanted to create some form of art in honour of this small synchronistic revelation  …my first effort can be seen towards the end of this short 2 minute video