the selkie, first version Picture

Update: I've finally finished reworking this mask; you can see the end result here. The description below still applies, however.

I make a point of avoiding angst in my artwork, mainly because I think there's way too much of that sort of thing out there already (and besides, who gives a crap about my personal grief? Hell, even I don't care), but sometimes it's unavoidable. This mask is one of those exceptions, so if whining and self-pity annoy you, by all means skip this description. Most people have worse, or at least more interesting, problems than I do. (The explanation also involves some medical details, so if you are easily squicked by that kind of thing, consider yourself warned.)

Still with me? Okay then, here's the deal. Shortly before I entered graduate school in 2001, I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease after experiencing a series of high fevers and other puzzling medical problems. (If you are unfamiliar with Crohn's, I encourage you to click here for a good description.) Because the disease is relatively slow-moving, its negative impact on my life has been difficult to grasp; unlike losing a limb or anything similarly sudden and dramatic, the effects of Crohn's creep up on you insidiously, and since there is generally no single point in time at which your health "turned bad," it can be hard to remember what life was like in earlier years. It slowly eats away at you, sapping your energy and screwing up your daily life in small but irritating ways, on rare occasion becoming painful enough to require direct medical attention. Did I mention that Crohn's is known to get worse due to emotional stress? It's true. Not a great way to start grad school.

In July of 2004, my symptoms finally worsened to the point where I required major abdominal surgery in order to have a section of my upper and lower intestines removed. I don't think I have ever been in so much pain, or felt so completely helpless, as I did during that time. My recovery has taken most of the year since then, and in some ways, I will never be able to fully recuperate; to preserve what little modesty I have left on this subject, I'll spare you the reason why. I have been unable to focus on my studies, my relations with friends have been greatly stressed, and I have had very little physical and emotional energy to cope with life in general. I don't think it's being overly melodramatic to state that it feels like a part of my soul has been ripped away.

Finally, I'm getting to the part about how all this relates to the mask. I have been fascinated with selkie mythology ever since I was a kid, and earlier this summer, it occurred to me that I had found a certain parallel in the recent events of my life. In the legends, a selkie girl will shed her seal skin to bask on the rocks for a time in human form (in order to, what, get a tan? In Scotland??), but if a man should steal her skin, she becomes enslaved to him, losing all contact with her former life as a seal, until she can find her skin and return to the ocean. (The male selkies had a much better go of it; they basically just got to nance about on land and knock up nubile young women who would later give birth to children with webbed fingers. Oh, and they would sometimes overturn fishing boats to protest the slaughter of their kindred. Men rarely get the short end of the stick in these stories.) The notion of losing a critical element of one's self--a part that one hopes desperately to someday regain--resonates very strongly with me at the moment, and this sculpture was made in direct response to that emotion. In folklore, however, the shedding of a selkie's skin is almost a casual affair, and the tragedy lies in the skin's loss. I wanted to illustrate a direct coupling of those two events, and for some reason, the gruesome image of a mutilated seal's skull came instantly to mind.

Most people, I think, would rather be a human than a seal, so they may be hard-pressed to see what's so terrible about being trapped in an alien body forever. I suppose I wanted to make that sense of loss a bit more graphic. Tear away at a seal's skin, and all you will find beneath is bare muscle and bone, not some pretty, submissive young waif. Reality intersecting with fantasy, if you will. You can decide for yourself whether or not the metaphor works.

There is actually a second reason for the selkie theme, but I won't be writing about that here.

To those of you who finished reading all that: wow, you have a lot of patience. Thank you for listening.

About the sculpture itself. I'm not at all satisfied with the way some aspects of this mask turned out, particularly my use of cloth on the back parts of the skull. It is intended to represent the seal's pelt being ripped away to reveal the tissue beneath, but it just looks like a mess instead. I will definitely be redoing that part in the future, but first I have to figure out how to make it work right, visually. The skull's surface is also way too rough (Celluclay is much harder to sand when it's cured than I thought it would be), but a little patience and a lot of spackle should be all I need to fix that. On the other hand, I think the shape of the skull turned out great, and so did the teeth. It is roughly based on the skull of a harbor seal, but I took a number of liberties with the anatomy so that it could be worn without severely restricting one's vision. I expect that the revised version of this mask will look pretty damn good.

Here are some additional pictures:

Mesh framework (work in progress)
Close-up of the mask
Me wearing the mask

Media: Aluminum mesh, Celluclay II, Fimo, acrylic paints, clear varnish, various fabrics
Continue Reading: Figures