Boko – The Influence of Events

(This is another instalment in the retrospective I’m doing for this website on the 10 masks I have – thus far – created)

It is 2010 or 2011 and I have moved – twice – since creating Túatha, the prototype for my series of masks adorned with antlers. Five years have elapsed and I am now living in a house in Kitsilano. Much has transpired since Tùatha was conceived (https://clayandbone.com/2016/12/13/death-mask-troubled-dreams-on-the-road-to-clay-bone/ )…and I feel the stirrings of the Muse. I’m still heavily engaged in the drinking process and have set up a “man cave” in the garage on our property. I’ve recently rediscovered the second set of antlers which I purchased at the same time as those which adorn Tùatha and have found – much to my surprise and delight – some remaining clay which was quite readily resurrected with a little bit of work and water. The man cave would serve as my studio where I would create my next mask based on the attached image of a shaman from Togo in a voodooistic trance.

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Admittedly, this mask, with it’s white eyes and indeterminate expression has a slightly malevolent look. To me it seemed perfectly suited for the set of antlers which I had in my possession, and I was determined to depict it in clay.

As is true of all of my masks since Boko, I begin the process by creating one or several rough sketches of the subject. I find that this gives me a better feel for the shapes and contours that I will be trying to recreate, and gets me in touch with how the antlers will best be situated. It also allows me to create a larger image from which to work, and provides a copy that I don’t mind getting wet or stained during the messy mask-making process.

      

For the first several years of its life Mask #2 (as Boko was first known) remained nameless and unadorned. It began as a fairly simple reintroduction to the mask making process after a 5 year hiatus. I applied a dark brown glaze to try and match the skin tone in the picture, attached the antlers and let it sit until I opened my studio on Mayne Island, several years later. While on Mayne, I had a chance to reflect on this mask and had been influenced by events in northeastern Nigeria, where an islamist/extremist group named Boko Haram had been committing atrocities. I named him Boko – after the group – as a tacit recognition of the evil which can reside in all of us.

The picture to the right (above) was created on Mayne Island as I searched for ways to bring more human detail and life to Boko. The three face depictions have different examples of sub-saharan face paint that I gleaned from online research. I ultimately settled on a variation of the face paint example on the bottom left which is from the Wodaabe tribe – a small subgroup of ethnic Fulani nomadic herders in the Sahel. The variations of brown paint shown above were used to give more character and detail to the original glazed mask – especially to highlight Boko’s lips.  The final result can be seen here:

 

 

Mask Making – Uluru…Dreamtime

I grew up in a National Geographic household. For as far back as I can recall, my parents subscribed to NatGeo, and it was always a moment of anticipatory joy when the plain brown-paper envelope arrived in the mail with each months issue. As a kid, it was all about the visuals. Archaeology, anthropology, astronomy…nature & culture…exotic people, places and events all brought to you in glorious illustrations and photographs. I think I can credit National Geographic for strongly influencing my worldview, and broadening my outlook immeasurably. It offered a technicolour glimpse of a – then – black and white world.

This is a photo of the first mask I ever made. I created this in high school, and the image was borrowed directly from one of our National Geographics. The face is of an aboriginal

 

DSCN1318Australian man, and I recall being fascinated with his weathered, sun-baked face. This mask remained unnamed for many years until the Australian government began a policy of renaming prominent landmarks and locations with indigenous names. Uluru is the name given to the former “Ayers Rock” , and is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu people of the area.

Dreamtime refers to a religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs which goes way way back into the distant past, back to a “time out of time” or an “everywhen” that has been long forgotten…it’s very similar to me trying to remember what I did in high school…luckily, Uluru is there to remind me 🙂

 

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” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs ) …which I found stimulating and enlightening and caused me to faun over “all things Maslow” …for a while at least.

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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…

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Mask Making – Túatha the Prototype

The idea of creating human-likeness ceramic masks with deer antlers, (germinated the night of “The Seminal Moment” – https://clayandbone.com/2017/04/20/mask-making-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: https://clayandbone.com/2017/04/30/mask-making-abraham-maslows-exploding-head/  ) 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.

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(This mask is available for purchase:  https://clayandbone.com/portfolio/tuatha/ )

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 – https://clayandbone.com/2016/12/13/death-mask-troubled-dreams-on-the-road-to-clay-bone/  )…I would not return to clay sculpting and the kiln for the next 5 years.

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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…

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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.

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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” – https://clayandbone.com/2017/04/22/mask-making-tuatha-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

 

Transient Epileptic Amnesia

It’s difficult to say with any certainty exactly when I developed Transient Epileptic Amnesia (TEA). My feeling is that it began with my post stag-party  seizure & collapse in 2010, which was labelled Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome by the emergency doctor as he was tending to my –  first – broken foot. At the time this made perfect sense for I had quit drinking – cold turkey – after a particularly toxic & excessive guys weekend in Vegas to celebrate the upcoming wedding of our dear friend Johnny. “Who knew?”… that you shouldn’t quit drinking suddenly, and that it was better to wean oneself gradually off the booze. The seizure happened at home as I was getting out of bed, a full 3 days after I’d had my last drink. The ER Doc’s explanation made sense, it was viewed as a one-off, and I vowed to never quit drinking again 🙂

Fast forward to May 2012, a full month after I had joined the AA program and gained my sobriety. I awoke disoriented one day but attached no particular significance to this. I was experiencing  a brief difficulty with short term memory and was peppering my partner with questions about what had transpired the week prior and what was coming up. Other than a little generalized confusion, my thought was that this was just my brain adjusting to life without alcohol. I wasn’t hungover and this was unusual. After a half an hour of this I shrugged it off as an inconsequential result of quitting drinking. All good.

A month later it happened again. The symptoms were similar but this time it lasted a bit longer – long enough for me to get dressed, leave the house and go grab a coffee. The world appeared slightly changed and both the visuals and the smells were different. I felt like I was a little high, it was slightly hallucinatory but this too dissipated with time, and I chalked it up to further evidence of my post-alcoholic healing. Although I wasn’t overly worried it did register as a unique experience and my level of concern was ramped up to “Level 3”.

The following month, roughly 4 weeks after my previous seizure, I awoke, got out of bed, got dressed, made it to the kitchen and collapsed on the floor. Nothing broken, and I managed to get up quite quickly. This did set off alarm bells however, for myself and my partner, and It was decided that another trip to the ER was in order. What ensued was an impressive trip through the Canadian medical system. Over the next while I was assigned a Neurologist – Dr.Spacey (I kid you not) – and underwent a battery of tests…ECG’s, EEG’s, MRI’s, scans, blood work and conversations with various specialists. I was very impressed with our System and how thorough and attentive it could be –  I felt very adequately prodded and poked.

Despite all of this, my Neurologist wasn’t able to come up with a conclusive diagnosis so I was forwarded to an Epileptologist  – Dr. Hrazdil. While all of this medical attention and analysis was going on I continued to have these episodes once a month, like clockwork,  from May through to December of 2012 – but didn’t suffer another collapse until my final seizure in late December. Throughout this 8 month period , I was more curious than concerned. I had faith in my specialists and was able to witness my episodes more as an observer than a patient. I found the experiences interesting.

In December I was to see my Epileptologist for the last time. Dr H. was 8+ months pregnant and getting ready for maternity leave and motherhood. Despite all the tests, she was uncertain as to the nature of my malady.  She had spoken with her supervisor and he was aware of a rare condition called Transient Epileptic Amnesia (fewer than 100 people have been diagnosed with this condition worldwide ) which seemed to fit my list of symptoms, but they weren’t prepared to commit to a diagnosis  or prescribe anything as a remedy –  just yet – the idea was to “keep an eye on it” and see how things played out. I mentioned to her my suspicion that it may have been predicated on my years of heavy drinking, and the similarity to the Alcohol Withdrawal Seizure I’d suffered in 2010…she remained opaque on this issue and would neither support nor negate it. A few weeks after this final meeting with Dr. H., at the end of December, I had another seizure which resulted in a collapse (my final one) – in the exact same spot that I’d collapsed and broken my left foot in 2010 – the only difference was…this time I broke my right foot.

When you have seizures, collapse, and break things, the medical system fast tracks you, and you move to the front of the queue for further specialist attention. Because my Epileptologist  was off having a baby I was plunked back in front of Dr. Spacey – my Neurologist – in rather short order in early January…plastic cast, crutches, contrition and all.

God bless the internet….and Wikipedia. Having received the tentative diagnosis of Transient Epileptic Amnesia from my Epileptologist, I had done my homework and tracked down a bundle of info on Wikipedia, including; symptoms; diagnosis; epidemiology; and treatment etc…and, what finally convinced me that I indeed had TEA was this:  “The IQ of people diagnosed with TEA tends to be in the high average to superior range…,”    (Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transient_epileptic_amnesia)   …yeah, that was it, it wasn’t the alcohol abuse, it was because I was too smart …I immediately curtailed all excessive intelligence and limited my smart thinking to one day a week 🙂

As I sat with my Neurologist in her office on that cold January morning she asked, “What did your Epileptologist say?..”Well”, I replied, “she thought it might be a rare condition, something called Transient Epileptic Amnesia.” …”Really? Hmmm, I’ve never heard of that before” replied Dr. S. “Well”, I said, “there’s a fair bit of info on Wikipedia”. “Hmm, OK, let me have a look” she said as she pulled out her laptop. For a few minutes she was engrossed in reading about this new condition, and then inquired, “Did Hrazdil prescribe anything for you?” “No”, I replied, “it was just a tentative diagnosis so no prescription was given”. “Well, let’s see what it says on Wikipedia” she said. Diving back into her laptop for a few minutes, with a few nods, “uh-huh’s” and the occasional raised eyebrow she finally went “Oh…OK… Carbamazepine…sure, that’s a fairly well known anti-seizure medication, I can prescribe that for you”…!!…I must admit I was a little stunned…diagnosis to prescription within 5 minutes from Wikipedia! I was torn between the relief of having my  condition diagnosed with a prescribed remedy and my inherent mistrust of any information gleaned from the net.

As I sit here typing away on my laptop, in one of my neighbourhood coffee shops, 4 years seizure free, I am still in awe of the implications of the Wiki diagnosis. With fewer than 100 people worldwide diagnosed with this condition, the solution/cure would have been unlikely if not impossible in our pre-connected world…great things ahead for remote communities with limited medical facilities…and one more hurdle overcome on my personal journey of recovery.

Gratitude.