Intriguing Masks

By Louise Irvine

I have been researching the work of Paul Stankard for our upcoming exhibition in November and was intrigued by these two experimental paperweight designs featuring face masks on a mossy ground, which were acquired recently by Arthur Wiener. They seemed appropriate for our Halloween issue, so I asked Paul about his inspiration.

Apparently, in 2000, Paul wanted to bring a human element into his paperweights as an extension to his popular root people. His fascination for the life energy above and below the earth evolved into these extraordinary face masks. As a child, Paul loved to pull clumps of grass out of the ground complete with roots, dirt and insects. It was a fascinating area of exploration and he often found it more interesting under the earth than above.

Paul made the little face masks using the pate de verre, or glass paste technique, which involves grinding glass into a fine powder and adding a binder to create a paste and a flux to facilitate melting. The tiny eyeballs were made separately using Paul’s more usual flame-working process and painstakingly fused into their sockets.

I was aware that Paul’s root people had been influenced by medieval herbals and the interpretation of mandrake roots in human form. A recent addition to the collection is an experimental design depicting a honeycomb populated by a root man and woman. I wondered whether Paul’s mask designs were influenced by the Green Man, a symbol of nature, spring and rebirth since Roman times. Ornate masks with intertwined leaves and foliage occur in Celtic art as the Celts venerated sacred trees and revered the human head, believing it to be the repository of the soul. The Green Man was absorbed into Christian iconography, appearing in illustrated manuscripts and church carvings.

Paul was intrigued by my interpretation but didn’t have that point of view as he was unaware of the Green Man when he started these experiments. After further research, he says he would have played around more with the vegetation if he had known. Some of Paul’s fans found his face paperweights disturbing and one critic suggested they looked like death masks. In the end, he did not pursue the mask idea, which was not as well received as his root people in flowers. Whatever Paul’s inspiration, subliminal or otherwise, he didn’t make many mask paperweights. In 2007, he destroyed around 400 experiments or what he considered to be failures in his studio, so we are very fortunate to have some of his experimental work at WMODA.

Read more about Paul Stankard’s work.

Brilliant Botanicals
Beauty Beyond Nature
Save the Bees

The exhibition of Paul’s work opens on November 9